i cried in the supermarket (and I might do it again)

the land of ramyen!

It happened. I knew it would and that was why I had been avoiding it for so long. But, the pull was strong, (and the need was great), so, 830pm last Saturday night, I found myself there — inside a large Australian supermarket, (affectionately know as Woolies), and, as I had predicted I would, I started to cry in the yoghurt aisle.

Its been a month since I returned to Australia. My time in Korea had been fun. A lot of fun. But, my three American sounding kids, (international school in Korea equals American accents), needed to be introduced to the land of endless blue sky, brown grass and skinny sheep, (in summer), so, after four years, we came “home”.

A lot can happen in four years. Once, I had three children in four years. And all I remember from those four years is a frenzy of nappy changing and out of tune lullaby singing, by me to me (the babies were really not interested). In another four year period I went to uni, moved out of home, had a boyfriend or two, aced an exam, failed an exam, and crashed two cars, (including during my driving exam). And I have been married three lots of four years, (to the same person).

What then of my four years in Seoul? I have no expectations that every four year period will be as developmentally challenging or significant as others. So while I did spend four years in Seoul, (and had an awesome time being there), as it fell between the ages of mid to late thirties, (I’m sticking with 39 for a little longer than reality allows), I had concluded that my personality was stuck were it was when we had arrived and the only stand out developments of the time were:

  • a depressing proliferation of grey hair on my head;
  • an alien invasion of my Kindle, that has resulted in it now becoming filled with romance novels, (should someone ever steal my Kindle, I will shamelessly lie and claim I never downloaded them), and
  • my patience for helping the third child master the times table ran away to the land where people have time to iron, organise their closets by colour and cut up carrots, (you know they taste just the same when eaten whole, right?).

But, much like how I thought I was flying from Seoul to Melbourne directly, (we took an unxpected detour and ended up in Hong Kong for two days thanks to vomiting children), I was mistaken. Not only did I emerge off that plane with more grey hair, (try long haul flying with three sick children by yourself and see how well you look at the end), but I found a very different place at the end or, maybe, it was a very different me.

A friend likens the phenomenon of returning home after long periods away to awakening from a coma. I’ve never been in a coma. But I’ve often been asleep, just not for an extended period of time, (like longer than four hours in the past ten years thanks to children). So I like this analogy: it does feel like I have woken to a world that looks really, really familiar except that it’s not. There are a million or so subtle differences like: a fascination with craft beers; a thing for coffee shops staffed only by bearded men; and a need for cooking shows to be on every single night, that make me feel confused. How people talk and what they talk about isn’t quite what I remember it to be. I am making mistakes. A lot of mistakes. Like:

  • occasionally, (I would say rarely as that sounds slightly less scary, but it is not true!), driving on the wrong side of the road especially in ramps in shopping centre car parks;
  • staring a little too intently and listening a little too hard at people’s conversations in the bus, (I don’t mean to it is just that I am used to living in a bubble where I don’t understand what it being said around me so I am finding the ability to listen and converse just a little challenging at times, especially in crowded situations);
  • asking for an Americano at the coffee shop, (“We don’t make those kind of drinks here, love!”);
  • not knowing how to pay for things (I don’t understand where to put my card, I keep forgetting my pin number, which, in some places it is not even needed, and I think the cash here is actually a work of art rather than real money).

I didn’t make any fundamental mistake inside the supermarket last Saturday night though, (well, none that I was aware of anyway). I got my trolley and I walked in an orderly fashion up and down the aisles, picking up necessary items and placing them in trolley to be paid for at the end. But the eye pricking started around aisle 3, when I found magazines written in English. Then a drop of water escaped my left eye in aisle 5 as I picked up a two bags of lentils. And the flood began when I turned the corner of aisle 9 and entered the yoghurt zone. Sigh.

I do love a good Australian supermarket. It contains food that is so familiar, and lovely, (hello Vegemite, Milo and Weetbix). It has a whole aisle dedicated to yoghurt and the cheese selection goes on and on and on. The fruit and vegetable choice blows your mind, (did you know that in the one place at the same time you can buy mangoes and apples and that it is not weird and you can choose between apple colours?). I cannot even begin to talk about the bread: sourdough, wholemeal, low GI, high GI, no sugar, lots of sugar, seeds, grains, bread that is sliced, bread that is unsliced. So many carbs. So much joy.

But here’s the kicker: as much as I was extremely excited by the deliciousness of it all, I realised on this late and lonely, (not really lonely, but remember, I have been accidentally reading romance novels), Saturday night that things were missing. There were no plastic bags of kim chi filling most of available fridge space. There was no seaweed. There were no live fish swimming in fish tanks and the lettuce was not segregated in its own greenhouse. And, when I did, eventually, locate the rice aisle, I became a little stressed about size, (which is minature. No 10kg bags of rice for sale there).

So I cried, and not because I was voluntarily shopping at a supermarket on a Staurday night and there was no romance. (OK, so maybe I was a bit sad about the no romance thing going on. According to the romance novels I have found on my Kindle, romance is always bound to happen in the supermaket on a Saturday night. Maybe I was just in the wrong aisle?) I cried for all the things I now have but for all the things I have now lost.

I analysed this, as I cried in front of the vanilla bean yoghurt part of aisle 9, and it would seem that my four years spent in Seoul was so much more than new grey hairs, secret romance reading and disappearing patience for teaching the times table the third time. Over four years in Seoul, I:

  • learned to sing out loud (just not in tune);
  • chased down love matching couples;
  • climbed a few mountains;
  • wrote some stories; and
  • ate a lot of Korean.

And I came back a little different because of it.

No-one around me understood this as I stood, crying, in Woolies down the yoghurt aisle on Saturday night, (given no-one stopped to ask what the matter was, it is safe to say that no-one was really interested either. Saturday night in a supermarket is probably not the best time to search for empathetic strangers). While I do love a good sticker, and could potentially make one to wear that says I’m a bit lost and just trying to understand where I fit, as a way of explaining my behavior, given I am going to be here for quite some time now, it might be more appropriate to work on containing my tears when food shopping, or, more generally, when leaving the house.

How to do this when I feel neither here nor there? I’m not entirely sure but I have some ideas. It starts with embracing the inner Korean that is now inside of me to combine my new self with my self before Seoul.

So I’m searching for the local Noreabang. My fluorescent hiking gear arrived this week and I’m climbing Mt Ainslie (the mountain in the city) in it. I’ve restocked my face cleaning products: come around after 7pm if you want to join me with a cucumber mask. I cannot leave the house in thongs and I may bow at you when saying thank you. And I found a Korean supermarket, just a ten minute drive down the highway. There is no point pretending that the local supermarket is enough anymore. Not to say that it is not lovely and delicious — which it is — but I have to supplement. Only problem is that I cried in there too. And in the carpark afterwards. And then I went home to eat a bag of kim chi. Followed up with some vegemite toast. Welcome home!