By Shannon Selis
When heading somewhere new, it only seems natural to compare the new place to the old, right? We become so accustomed to our surroundings and routines that change, albeit wanted, is what we come to resist. One moves to a new city where the pace is faster than the last one. One moves to a new state where the accents and dialect sound funny. One moves to a new country where, thankfully, there’s still a McDonalds. But, does this chicken sandwich taste weird to you? Nothing will ever be like it was “where I come from.”
I lived in Florida for the majority of my life. In 2007 I moved out to Hawai’i for a couple of years. People seemed nicer, the beaches seemed prettier, the food seemed to taste better. But my apartment was more expensive, the ocean was colder, the sun set sooner. Hawai’i and Florida are two beach vacation destinations. They both have swaying palm trees and golden beaches. They both have the best seafood and coldest pina coladas. They seem so similar but are so different. Florida is made up of southerners, retired northerners, and second generation Hispanics. Hawai’i is made up of Samoans, Phillipinos, Pacific Islanders, Japanese, Mexicans, and haole (white people/foreigners). The mindset is different, the expenses are different, the history is as similar as it is different. After a few months, I realized it just was not fair to compare Florida and Hawai’i.
I moved back to Florida a couple of years later and I was miserable. The drivers were too aggressive, the people were so rude, the sushi was not as sweet, and the weather was not amicable. I had done a 180°. I was now comparing the home I had known my whole life to the home I had called paradise for only a couple of years. I know I will go back someday, but there was more traveling that I wanted to experience.
I spent about three years in Florida after my abrupt return. The majority was spent in Orlando and the final 10 months were spent in Tampa. Two cities about an hour apart could not be any more different. Yes, Orlando had Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, Seaworld, and other fantastic attractions. Tampa had Busch Gardens. I may have frequented any of those parks less than a handful of times in that three-year period. Tampa was so different! The crowd seemed younger and more attractive. There were more food options at closer range. The sun seemed to shine brighter! But it was also more ghetto. And more country. And the traffic seemed as bad, if not worse. It was not until January 2012, when I began my TEFL certification course, I remembered: it was not fair to compare Orlando and Tampa.
Flash forward to the start of September 2013: I have moved to South Korea to teach English. The time between Tampa and Ulsan, I spent in Suratthani, Thailand teaching my first year of English. I was teaching primary school private students. I taught students between the ages of 4 – 12 (with the occasional private tutoring for adults). Now my students vary between the ages of 11 – 15. I was barely able to get the kids in Thailand to read the word ‘the.’ Now I am having class debates about gay discrimination in Russia. I was having students spell colors and fill in the blanks to sentences in their workbooks in Thailand. In Korea my students are writing multiple page essays. Nobody in their right mind would try comparing the education levels of lower primary students to low-mid secondary school students. Needless to say, I got over that one real quick.
I know better, but I find myself still comparing South Korea to Thailand. The two countries are incredibly different and I am fully aware of this. My only experience with “Asia” is the year I had in Thailand (and the 2 weeks in Hong Kong). That experience is not even in a big city like Bangkok. Suratthani barely had buildings taller than 4 floors. Now I live in a building that has 13 floors. I had a view of a schoolyard, and now I overlook a city with mountains in the background. The sound of dogs barking and Thais singing karaoke filled my room last year. Now my apartment is filled with the sounds of construction, busy streets, and Koreans singing karaoke – huh, I guess that won’t change. For the equivalent of $3.50, I could eat an entire fish with sticky rice and drink a bottle of Sprite in Suratthani. For the equivalent of $10 I can eat a bowl of pasta in Ulsan. I knew almost everyone that was farang (foreigner) in my ‘city’ in Thailand. It would be a feat to know the thousands of foreigners living in Ulsan. The differences cannot even be compared.
Perhaps I know now from experience, or perhaps the differences are so vast; it only took me a couple of weeks this time to reach this realization. I hope it sticks firmer when I move on to a new place again. It just is not fair to try to compare anywhere to anywhere.
Shannon Selis is an English teacher and massage therapist currently frequenting South Korean karaoke bars. When she’s not teaching, singing show tunes, or mastering recipes, she shares her experiences at wittylmt and Another Food Thing.