What to expect when you’re not expecting

What to expect when you’re not expecting.

I think this was the title of a movie -rather a disaster I hear- starring Cameron Diaz and Elizabeth Banks. Although I am in no way of ‘expecting’ as the movie indicated,  I do think it serves as a perfect subtitle to my trip to Dakar.

What was I expecting indeed? Getting lost from the airport to my airbnb place. Not being able to step one foot outside the door without being called ‘Chinois!’ or ‘Amigo!’ or ‘Ching-Chong’, like my 14 years of living in Nouadhibou had taught me, yet never accustomed me to. Being utterly unaware of how to find my way in town. So many concerns and anxieties, besides the main question ‘Does my research question actually make sense IRL?’.

What I was not expecting however is the wave of familiarity and memories that overcame me when I saw the little bit of the city from the plane. The lack of skyscrapers, the overwhelming presence of neutral toned colors – sand, tranquility, monotony – the flat houses invading one another on narrow streets, the occasional minarets, the vast parcels of destitute lands, and the multitude of cars – everything that I had forgotten, that time had tucked away in the further corners of my box of memories, came back. Granted, Dakar was not my hometown per se, it is actually a much more developed version of good old Nouadhibou (especially 20 years ago), but it didn’t matter. I could still recognize bits of my childhood in this West African capital.


View of Dakar from the plane.

Once in the city, I realized memories come in other forms than visual ones. It was not just the sight of ’boutiques’ that seem to have just popped out of nowhere from pieces of metal. It was more than the frequent horses (donkeys in Nouadhibou) dragging the carriages. It’s as if all my senses had been awoken by this trip back ‘home’.

It’s the heat of the scorching sun on your skin and in your eyes. It’s the smell and taste of the exhaust fumes from the run-down vehicles that constantly tingle the back of your throat (whoever thinks Africa is the land of pure air and nature blah blah has never been to African capitals). It’s the sound of the clip-clops from the horse carriages. It’s the sound of the distant, yet awfully close, call to prayers five times a day. It’s the tingle of the sand on your feet, it’s the struggle of trying to walk in that sand everywhere you go. It’s the constant thrill you get trying to cross a busy intersection, looking left and right, without the help of traffic lights – will you make it this time as well or will that car run you over? It’s that laugh and not-quite-shaking, not-quite-slapping of hands when you say something funny with your friends. It’s that smell of a mixture of piss and food gone bad from the heat and time that linger in the corner of every street.

It’s the feeling of finally being at home after all these years, something I have never been able to feel from the many instances I landed in Seoul, South Korea, the land of my passport.

Gosh, Africa (not to generalize), it’s good to be back.



Certain realization

Here I am again. And it’s good to be back. Updating a blog regularly during school semester, especially the first one, where everything goes by in a haze-like carousel ride, was not something I should have even thought of doing. Yet it’s such a shame, because it is when so many new things are happening, so many “I should write this down” moments. I guess I’ll have to guard them safely with me, until I find the energy, the time, the motivation, and the memory to write them down, some day.

The first semester is over, and although I am relieved it’s all over, I am, more than anything, thankful.

Each of the things I am thankful for could be a post on its own, and one of the things I am thankful for is to have learned.

Sure, I learned stuff in class, but I think I have learned most about myself. Yes, this happens, it seems that no matter how old you are, you always learn new things about yourself. You discover some aspects of yourself you did not know you had, which is usually less than pleasant. But I guess it’s just as important to know those aspects if you want to have a chance at changing them for the better.

I learned that I am far more conservative and far more ‘Korean’ than I thought I would ever be. And I wonder, did the past 10 years leave their mark on me? Or have I always been this person, even before Korea?

Going back and forth between two countries, two cultures, two places, is a tricky thing. I miss things I used to hate, I long for things I never thought were important. I understand the value of certain things I despised, I doubt the impact of certain things I trusted.

I miss the bustling of the busy streets of Seoul, where people push you without saying sorry, even if it’s just for the sake of giving them the evil eye and cursing them under my breath. I wouldn’t mind having subways come every 2-3 minutes, fully knowing on the other hand, that the drivers’ welfare is under no consideration whatsoever. I used to sigh with exasperation at the silence of many Korean students, but I now understand, a little, of why humility and modesty are still considered as virtues there.

And I fully know that I will be annoyed by these same things if I go back to Korea. I will miss the ‘thank yous’ and ‘sorrys’ and smiles, I will criticize Koreans for always wanting to be as comfortable as possible, without even recognizing the sacrifices of others for that to happen, I will point at their complacency as the reason for the lack of improvement.

I do wonder if there ever comes a point where I stop comparing the two countries and accept them for what/who they are.


It was my watch.

The watch stopped working. Instead of being five minutes in advance like it was usually set, the minute hand would be five minutes late. No matter how much I rewound it, it was five minutes later the next day. Where do you get your watch fixed in Boston?

A simple question, a simple task in the middle of the day.

Missing home and missing people is not something you constantly feel -thank god- and sacredly hold on to every bit consciously. Days can go by without even having time to give a single thought to what you left behind and to the people you used to be around. You’re mostly content, satisfied, and even still bewildered at your new life.

Until your watch stops working.

I am at the Home Plus mall behind our apartment in Ilsan. I am going down the slow escalator to where the man is selling jewelry, the type I would never buy, and repairs your watch for a modest fee, expertly opening the watch and placing a new battery, without exchanging a single word. Something so simple and common.

And I have no idea where to have my watch fixed in Boston.

I go back up the escalator, walk hand in hand with Mom past the giant Minion that was placed for the movie “Despicable Me 2”, which I regret to this day not having taken a picture with. We pass by the hideous ‘work of art’ in front of the mall, always staring at it although we see it every single time we pass by, and marvel at its unseemliness. The young man working to greet the passing cars going in the mall is there, he’s probably been standing there for a couple of hours, and will continue to do so long after we’re gone. We walk on the red bricks, and sometimes, a stupid biker will annoyingly ring the bell of his bike so that he can go his way, although the road for bikes is clearly right next to the pedestrian sidewalk. Mom probably curses him in French. But we go our way, still hand in hand, maybe with a bag of groceries in one hand. Dumplings for me? Or perhaps tomatoes from which Mom makes juice every morning. Probably tomatoes. You can never be too healthy. The light is red and we wait for our turn to walk. A gentle squeeze from our hands, we look at each other and smile. Just because. Just because we’re there, together.

It’s one of those moments you miss every single thing from what used to be home, every detail, including the most annoying ones. And you’re annoyed you remember those too, that those too have their place in your memories.



Thankfully, I don’t have frequent storms of nostalgia that put me to bed in tears. It’s more of a gentle breeze that shakes me a little and leaves me a bit chilly when I’m least expecting it. But after the initial brisk surprise, there’s a tiny time frame I let the wind squeeze its way beneath my jacket and my clothes, during which I learn to enjoy the sudden and momentary chill. And those few seconds are all I need to see the streets I used to walk, the people I used to be with. I guess it’s the warmth of their memory that allows me to enjoy the cold before I gather up my scarf and my jacket and let the wind find back its flow onto the fallen leaves on the new streets I am walking now. I guess it’s because I know how to let both the warmth and the coldness of the past go that I l can cope with nostalgia. I let its colors sip into the orange and red leaves before they roll away, each one carrying the image of familiar faces and familiar places. Sometimes my eyes get teary because I held on to the cold for one second too long. But it eventually goes away, and the tears go away too, leaving me a with shy and guilty smile for looking forward to the next step.