"The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it." Rudyard Kipling.
Thailand smelt like fried bananas, crispy batter encasing sweet warm softness that melts into your brain and makes you contemplate visa fraud. Thailand smelt like mangoes and spices, oregano, curry, coriander, cumin, humidity, sea-air, Tiger beer and sunshine. After a year of living in Korea, Thailand with its balmy embrace and tangy scents was the welcome change I needed for a holiday. Bangkok tasted like home, South Africa, with beef on sticks and beef in stews and beef over rice beef beef beef being the only thing I wanted to eat for 21 days after being deprived of it for so long. Thailand was a sultry mistress beckoning me into the dark chambers where I felt love, hope, joy, ecstasy. Each morning I woke under the white sheet and cooling fans, and my first question to the day was, What's for breakfast?
Korea smells like kimchi. At first whiff it smells sour, and cold, and difficult to chew. It seems unpalatable, but then you find different kinds of kimchi, you warm it up, you enjoy it with soup, with friends, on the barbecue, with some soju. You mix it with rice, and seaweed, and before you know it, you get it, and all that cold harshness falls away. Korea challenges me to try new things, to stretch my mind, to be better than I was yesterday. The first time I successfully ate all the chicken off a drumstick with my chopsticks I rejoiced. I'm unstoppable. The first time I gulped down raw liver with my boss I was proud, I tried it, and it didn't kill me.
But the point where I really realised that I am a grown up was when I had to discard my own ego and care for children. Teaching kids who don't speak your language or share your frame of reference is oryowayo (Korean word for difficult). I know this because when I give my students work they go, "Sansengnim (teacher) oryowayo." So when I tiny little girl came running up to me in the middle of the street crying in Korean, I had to snap into teacher mode, she must be one of mine, because she knows my name. What does she want? She's pointing at her nose, bleeding, a tissue, crap, do I have tissues? Rummaging through my purse, find a McDonald's napkin, she seems pleased, "Kamsahamnida", she goes away. Holy crap, I'm a teacher. In Korea. And I'm eating McDonald's? Somethings got to change. And it did.