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S(e)oul is where the Heart is

Growing up a disgruntled and alienated teen in the suburbs of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, I never imagined that life would take me to so many corners of the world, both as a traveler and expat.

It’s made me wonder exactly what makes a place feel like home. Is living and working somewhere, walking its streets day after day enough to make a place “home?” Or is it more elusive? More of a construct that gathers within its warm confines, our most cherished memories, hopes, feelings and dreams?

Obviously, I lean towards the latter. Experience has shown me the truth of this.

Because despite 23 of my most developmental years lived in the icy embrace of Calgary’s never-ending winter, I never felt at home. Maybe it was my Asian-ness in a very white community (it was the 70s/80s after all), but I’m inclined to think it was more about the culture of the city. Oil rich, conspicuous consumption, right wing politics was always the dominant narrative, and that has NEVER been me. Even as a teen, the city grated against my soul like fingernails across a chalkboard. We simply didn’t match.

Of course, I didn’t have the consciousness or maturity to understand THAT in my angst-filled youth. It took a solo move to Toronto at 25, and the comfort of being enveloped in a culture that just fit better. Not surprisingly, I spent a good portion of my 8 years there in a drug-fueled party, simultaneously running from and towards myself.

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By the end of it all, I emerged a bit battered and bruised, but closer than ever to a sense of home. There, I formed the friendships that I know will underpin a lifetime of experiences, both inner and outer. Kindred spirits that I know will carry me through the trials and difficult times in life.

Most importantly, Toronto is the place where I finally found the courage to stoke the embers of a truer version of myself. A version that wouldn’t be knocked off-balance by external influences, factors or beliefs. A version that could stand in the knowledge of what was right for me, without confusion, shame or remorse.

And so now here I sit.

Ten years into a life in Seoul. The city of my birth, but somewhere I’d never considered as a possible home. And though I’ve never felt less Korean, than the day I was actually surrounded by my own tribe, I’ve found a peace in this city of 25 million, that I was never able to attain in Calgary or Toronto.

How is it that I can feel at home, in a culture that’s so far off my inner compass, it’s not even on the map? Where I’m so far from most of my family and closest friends, that their physical presence is but a ghostly dream?

It’s taken living in 3 different cities, traveling to countless others, and most of my 43 years, to grasp the simple truth that home cannot be found in a physical place. Rather, that it resides within each and every one of us. And that when being within yourself is as comfortable as a well-worn pair of slippers, every place is Home.

READ MORE:  9 Things to do in Seoul over Chuseok

Have you always felt “at home?” or was it a long journey to find it? What’s home for you?

62 Comments Post a comment
  1. Beautiful personal post… there’s something magical about finding one’s roots and while I don’t have any experience in it, i’m glad you did.

    October 19, 2016
    • Absolutely. There is a connection, a kindred spirit that cannot be adequately described with words in our opinion. It is felt within us and it is beautiful

      October 19, 2016
      • Hi Mel and Suan – nice to meet you, and thank you for your comment. Agreed that what is felt inside cannot adequately be described with words. Sometimes you just have to trust what you feel without trying to make it logical. πŸ™‚

        October 22, 2016
    • Thanks Raghav…it took some time, and many twists and turns but I did eventually find “home” inside of myself (where it was all along). πŸ™‚

      October 22, 2016
  2. Sha #

    It’s weird but I’ve always known that I want to stay and remain in Singapore, no matter how much I’ve travelled..but I agree with you too… it is home not because it is where I was born n grew up. Rather, I’ve always looked forward to returning home to my loved ones, to my friends and all who know me intimately..that’s what I miss the most when I’m travelling..πŸ˜„πŸ˜„ honestly I am kind of homesick at the moment..haha..but I was just messaging all my friends to let them know..haha…

    October 19, 2016
    • Aww you’re homesick. πŸ™ But great that you can get in touch with your friends to feel better, and of course know that Singapore will always be your home. It’s funny, I never have a feeling of homesickness, but I guess it’s cuz I don’t consider any one place “home.” It’s more that I feel home in many places – even ones where I haven’t actually lived, like Rome, Thailand etc… who knows? Maybe one day these places will be home too…

      October 22, 2016
  3. Interesting post! I, instead, grew up in a place, dreamt of leaving it, went somewhere else, then somewhere else again, in another country. Here – London – I don’t quite fit, and I know I won’t be able to return to my hometown; too many memories, I’d be spending all my time reminiscing and this isn’t really good. I haven’t found where I want to be, but I do recognise certain things I like in the city I’d like to live in: mountains, XIX-century buildings, trams… Weird I know!

    October 19, 2016
    • Lol…those ARE very specific things to recognize!! πŸ™‚ But also amazing that you’re able to recognize them. It can be disconcerting to be “between places” like you are with your hometown and London, isn’t it? I feel bit that way about Canada – though most of my closest friends and family are there, and I love the principles that the country stands for, I know that I can never go back there to live. It’s a strange feeling, cuz I also know that I won’t be able to live in Korea for the rest of my life either…

      October 22, 2016
      • I know, the workings of my psyche amaze me as well! How come don’t you think you’ll be living in Korea forever? Want to move to Tuscany and have a farm next to Sting’s?

        October 22, 2016
        • OMG! Your psyche might also be psychic!! πŸ˜€ The actual original title for this post was “Rome is there the heart is,” because after our last visit there, we seriously started contemplating a move to Italy in the future. Maybe even to Tuscany…

          October 22, 2016
  4. I love this post. And the last paragraph could not be truer (at least for me!).

    October 19, 2016
    • Thanks Justine! It’s amazing how we have to run around sometimes, just to figure out something we should’ve known all along, right?! πŸ˜‰

      October 22, 2016
  5. This is beautifully written Shelley. It’s so interesting to me that you find peace back in the land of your birth despite being at odds with the culture, and despite what I would think would be the inevitable influence of all those formative years in Canada. I guess our genes speak to us in ways that we’re hardly aware of. Very early on after Don and I gave up having a home at all we learned how to be at home anywhere, each hotel room, hostel, airbnb. We’ve learned of course that home is a state of mind, not a place, but at the same time we still need time with our tribe which means being back in Vancouver, or for me being back in Canberra, my Aussie hometown.

    October 19, 2016
    • Thanks Alison. Growing up, all I heard about from my dad was how amazing Korea is, which made me actually kind of resent the country. It was just forced on my so much, but I realize now that the “forcing” was more about his nostalgia for the country, since the country he so loved and left, doesn’t really exist anymore. Even more shocking was moving here and realizing how completely UN-Korean I am. Those formative years definitely had an influence (and thank god they did), because what I see here culturally REALLY doesn’t fit for me, and most Koreans I know are just extremely stressed out from the weight of all the expectations on them. And while it was difficult growing up, now, it’s actually really nice to be “between cultures.” I really feel like I can just pick and choose what I like from everywhere I’ve been. And that’s real freedom.

      October 22, 2016
  6. I’m struggling with the idea of what is local or home these days, so I totally get this! Your search was in the past; mine is happening now – NOT what I expected at this point! I do innately know that home is not a place, but it’s still hard to get the feeling sometimes. You seem very content; reading about your past makes that seem even more awesome!

    October 19, 2016
    • Life is funny, isn’t it? Just when you think all is settled, the Universe throws you a curveball! It’s certainly never boring. But I agree, the whole idea of “home being an internal state,” is quite esoteric, and sometimes you really just need things to feel like home in a physical sense. But spend any amount of time somewhere and it’s bound to happen. I recall reading a study about expats, and they had some measure about “comfort” in a new place taking a few years, and “mastery” of a new culture taking something like 5 years. When I think about my time in Korea, it feels pretty true. I remember being so confused even by grocery shopping at first, but sure enough, it’s all pretty darn mundane now. πŸ˜‰

      October 22, 2016
  7. What a great post! I also never really developed a real feeling of home. All my life I spent between Finland and Germany, living here and there for some years. Now back in Germany with my family, living in the same place as my early youth I still feel like a stranger sometimes. Sure I can put up a mask for the neighbours but this place just does not feel like home.
    For me the place which feels the most like home is my parents cottage in Finland, probably because I have so many fond memories of it.

    October 20, 2016
    • It’s the same for me with Calgary. Even though I lived there for the longest period of my life (23 years!), I feel more of a stranger there, than I do in Rome, which I’ve only just visited a lot. I think that the impact of culture and how much it fits for you really does play a big role! It’s wonderful that you have a place where you do feel at home though, that you can revisit again and again. Do you think you’ll stay in Germany forever, or are you hoping to make a change one day?

      October 22, 2016
  8. Loved this post Shelley! We were talking about this two weeks back? It’s been so long since I’ve met you. Time flies here. πŸ™‚

    October 21, 2016
    • Aww thanks. <3 Time does fly here. It's like Seoul is the vortex or something. Boom! All of a sudden a year is gone. Just watch…before you know it 2 years'll be up for you guys. And yes, we must get together soon!

      October 22, 2016
  9. Interesting Shelley. For many years of traveling and living in various countries, I found the question “Where is your home?” impossible to answer. It took 20 years being away from my “childhood home” to find a new home and for me, I think it has a lot to do with the fact that my children are getting settled and are making meaningful connections. I can’t help but wonder if your new sense of home is related to your daughter’s birth in Seoul. Whatever, I’m glad you’re feeling it!

    October 22, 2016
    • Actually it’s interesting that you bring up Naia’s birth, because her being here has actually made us reconsider Seoul completely! Before her, we didn’t think at all about living elsewhere, but since her arrival, we’re seriously considering other options. Mostly because we don’t want her to be in the Korean education system (don’t like what it teaches), and because the air just seems to be getting worse and worse here. And after our summer in Europe, well…. we’ve got a little dream percolating… πŸ˜‰

      October 22, 2016
  10. Reblogged this on The Korea edit.

    October 23, 2016
  11. You’ve always been a person who knows what she wants, ponders and strive for it, and then gets it. A great way to really, really live. I’ve lost the sense of home. Home is where the wind takes me, fortunately and unfortunately.

    November 6, 2016
    • It took me awhile to get to that place though. It was definitely a process, with a lot of twists and turns and struggles. And definitely not always fun! Can’t complain about life now though, can I?

      I think the world is your home Rommel. You’re a global citizen who gets comfortable and adapts to whatever place you end up. It’s a skill that few are able to manage these days, which is strange in a world that’s increasingly interconnected. So sad, how ignorance, division and racism are taking over the world these days (Trump! still can’t believe it!) πŸ™

      November 13, 2016
  12. Love it! Wonder what made you think of that last analogy. Could it be our recent purchase of those great slippers, of which mine are still forgotten in your home? :p

    November 15, 2016
  13. Thank you for sharing. “Home” is a concept I still struggle to define and to embrace. Living far from family makes it especially hard to define home as “where the heart is” when my heart is stretched all over the globe. Recently moving to Italy has disrupted my feeling of home once again, but other traveller/expat stories like yours remind me I’m not alone. Seoul is a tough city to crack and I definitely miss it. Have some kimchi-jjigae for me! Cheers

    November 29, 2016
    • It’s a bit cliche, but I definitely think of the world as my home, rather than a particular country, with connections to be found everywhere we go. It’s funny because I never felt home in the place I’ve lived the longest (Calgary), and yet I feel home whenever I land in Bangkok’s airport! Strange. All over the kimchi-jjigae for you – perfect for the cold weather that’s blowing in these days.

      December 4, 2016
  14. It’s interesting where home is for people, isn’t it? My grandfather was always intrigued by Asian cultures and came here during the war. He died when I was two but when I got older and came to Korea, my family thought it was so funny how much I took after him in so many ways including being interested in learning more about Asian cultures.. now here I am ten years later and my mother-in-law’s seer says that when we move to the US, Jae-oo will be perfectly fine but I’ll be the one that wants to come back. Can you believe that? Well.. I can. Always with one foot out the door and more to see that’s for sure.

    December 14, 2016
    • Somehow that doesn’t surprise me that much. The times that I’ve gone back to Canada, I’ve enjoyed the break, but can’t see myself living there again. I’ve been changed too much by living here. Anyway, I don’t think i can handle those long winters anymore. Lol even the fact that you referenced your mother-in-law’s “Seer” shows how much Asia has gotten into you. πŸ˜‰

      December 21, 2016
  15. Kayley #

    This is something I’m always thinking about. While I’m super happy in Korea, I feel like I can’t be here forever. And while I’m very sure I want to travel on to the next place and see so much more, I’m not sure I can settle somewhere other than where I grew up. We’ll see how I feel after our trip back home this winter for the first time in 2 years!

    December 14, 2016
    • I wish I had grown up somewhere that I missed and wanted to return to eventually especially since my family is still there, but it’s just not to be. At this point I’m not even sure I can live anywhere in Canada, despite how amazing the country is.

      For awhile I thought I could stay in Korea forever, but now that I have a daughter, I just can’t see it happening. The air quality and education system are a few things that bother me, but mostly I don’t want her growing up thinking that her only value as a woman is in what she looks like…and while that’s a problem all over the world, it’s especially so here. πŸ™

      December 21, 2016
  16. Wow! Beautiful post. Your post makes me think again about my own children(10 and 7). They have both lived most of their life here in Korea. They aren’t Korean. They speak English as their first language. They know that this is not their country. They know that they are Filipinos. And when we go home to the Philippines, they are strangers. They speak more Korean words sentences than any of our Philippine languages. It’s tricky for parents and children alike but hopefully they would think more about being global citizens and accept that home is where you make it.

    December 16, 2016
    • Thanks Wendy. πŸ™‚ Home is such a fragile concept these days, with country becoming less and less associated with it more and more. I’ve lived most of my life in Canada, and am ethnically Korean, but culturally, I’d say I feel most European. Isn’t that weird? I guess that’s why I ended up with a European husband!! I wonder how my own daughter will feel about home – she was born and lives in Korea (so far), but has a Canadian passport and will speak English mostly. But agree with the idea of global citizens…home is wherever you make it. Now if only our governments would accept that idea too. πŸ˜‰

      December 21, 2016
  17. Thanks for sharing your story. I’ve been living here in Korea for more than a year now.This year, I had a one month vacation in Philippines. It was fun to go back to the place where you were born and raised. However, when I went back to my own place in Korea, I felt peace. I don’t really know why I felt more at home here. I guess, I just enjoy being alone.

    December 17, 2016
    • It’s funny where you find peace…and I agree that it’s not necessarily where you were born and raised. It can be just about where you feel most comfortable…though, Philippines is not a bad place to have to go back and visit. πŸ™‚

      December 30, 2016
  18. This is a beautifully written piece. Thanks so much for putting your heart on the table and sharing it with us. I’m so glad that you have found somewhere that is home to you. I’ve never really felt at home in Korea. Much like you, I don’t feel very at home in my hometown in Scotland so I consider Glasgow (the city that I studied in) to be my home. I’ll be returning for a visit this March and am looking forward to the familiarity of it.

    December 18, 2016
    • Thanks Nicole. πŸ™‚ To be totally honest, I don’t really at home in Korea, but more so at home in myself I guess. A long process. It helps of course, that I grew up eating the food and hearing the language so there’s a comfort there, but I am most definitely culturally Canadian. So much of Korean culture really really gets to me, and what feels to me like “discourteousness” the most of all. But you can’t have it all I guess. πŸ™‚ I’d love to visit Scotland one day. I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about it!

      December 30, 2016
  19. This is something I have been questioning a lot lately since I’ve been home for the holidays. When I was away, all I wanted to be was at home with my friends and chill out and this contributed to some serious home sickness at times! However, now that I am home, I just can’t wait to get back out again, but I wish I could bring someone with me. I guess for me it depends on the people I am with, regardless of location, but I am still trying to figure it out. πŸ™‚

    December 18, 2016
    • Yeah for sure, a bit part of my feeling of home comes from the fact that I have my hubby and my baby by my side wherever I go. Our friends are spread out all over the world, but these 2 are constant, so it definitely gives me some sort of grounding, no matter where we happen to live. I must admit though, I do miss my close girlfriends here in Korea…somehow it’s harder to make the same kind of connections here.

      December 30, 2016
  20. What a great post to read. Home to me will always be Canada (Hamilton, just outside of Toronto). Even though I’ve been living abroad and traveling for the last 2 years, it will always be my home.

    December 19, 2016
    • I think perhaps if I’d grown up in Toronto (rather than just moving there when I was 25), it would be home for me too…so much of what that city is about resonates with me and the girls I consider my soul sisters still live there!

      January 3, 2017
  21. Your first couple of paragraphs fits me to a T! I’ve moved around from Toronto to Kingston to Vancouver and back again, and the party talk really echoed with me. I definitely don’t feel at home here, but I feel pretty darn comfortable! Seoul is a great place to be!

    December 19, 2016
    • Haha if there’s one thing that Toronto does amazingly well, it’s the party scene. πŸ˜‰ And though it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, I definitely don’t regret the time I spent partying in Toronto. I learned a lot from those experiences, grew and even met the love of my life there.

      January 3, 2017
  22. I’m sure most of your readers have also moved around a lot, just like I have. As for calling a place “home”, I don’t really think about places in those terms. Am I comfortable, safe, surrounded by positive people who I love and cherish? Do I have a stable income that helps me do the things I’m passionate about such as photography, travel, dance, etc? Then, that is the place for me for that moment in time. I hope that you you’re content no matter where your life takes you.

    December 19, 2016
    • Those are all great parameters to judge “home” by. And I agree that those are the things that matter. Physical place doesn’t really have much to do with it…though I have to say that I don’t think I’d ever want to live through 6 month Canadian winters again! πŸ™‚

      January 6, 2017
  23. What a beautiful and personal post! It’s very fitting as I plan to write this week’s post touching on the concept of home. I was raised in Mexico and moved to the US at age 11. I’ve also spent time in Italy and now here in Korea, so I totally get your introspective article about the idea of ‘home.’ I am happy to hear it’s taken you a while to get to where you are – a true and deep sense of belonging, regardless of physical location πŸ™‚

    December 19, 2016
    • I think more and more people these days have lived in multiple places. My hubby for example is only 34, but has already lived in 5 different countries! I wonder when politics will catch up and realize that this whole notion of “country” and borders is becoming less and less relevant. I dream of the day, we’re all just citizens of the planet, rather than some manmade piece of land called a country.

      January 6, 2017
  24. This is beautiful and says so much about the challenge of reconciling your own ethnicity and background while experiencing the purposed differences in people while traveling. While I’ll never know the interesting perspective you’ve acquired through growing up in a different hemisphere from your ancestors, the longer I’m gone from my home country, the more alienated I feel from the people I used to surround myself with. Thank you for this post, it was a breath of fresh air for remembering perspective and the alteration one can attain with broadened horizons.

    December 19, 2016
    • Moving here really put the whole “nature-nurture” thing into focus for me. My whole life, my dad in particular, because of his longing for his homeland as an immigrant, pushed me towards Korea as much as possible. To the point, that he pushed me away from it. You know how it is. Now that I’ve lived in Korea for quite some time and traveled around the world, I am decidedly on the nurture side of things. Some personality traits are definitely nature, but in the ways I see and approach the world, it’s all nurture…

      January 15, 2017
  25. This was very deep, and thank you for sharing your story with us. Before reading this post, the only thing I knew about Calgary was that the Flames play there. :p

    I really like how you dug down deep into the question “Where is home?” It reminded me of the old adage, “If you’re from everywhere, you’re really from nowhere.”

    Also, I really love this line: “simultaneously running from and towards myself”……I think we all can relate!!

    December 31, 2016
    • Haha, I must admit that these days I know nothing about what’s happening in hockey. Somehow the glory days of the “battle of Alberta” seem far behind us now, never to be seen again. (I am really showing my age now, aren’t I?) πŸ˜‰

      We really do all spend way too much time running in all directions don’t we? When the answers are usually just right there in front of us…

      January 15, 2017
  26. So understand the feeling of “I don’t fit here” in a place that’s supposed to be “home” – particularly in Korea. Know that you are not alone in that feeling. Wishing you the best.

    February 14, 2017
    • It’s weird being Korean, but not feeling Korean in Korea, right? Such a strange feeling, but at the same time, when I look at my friends that are KOREAN and how stressed they are, I’m thankful that I don’t really fit in here, and bless my parents for taking us to Canada, so we could have a different perspective on life and what’s important…

      March 1, 2017
  27. This is very apt post for travelers or who frequently change their residences. We always think where our actual home and where we settle for permanent. But then sometimes we have to move on but still our heart lies to our place of birth, though we don’t even know that today we will adjust there or not. The place where we are born or spent our childhood is always memorable and I consider it as a home.

    November 22, 2018
  28. Aisha #

    Wow, I connect with this post on so many levels, but namely the fact that I always feel more centered, more grounded, more at home when I’m traveling and visiting new places and experiencing new cultures, than I do in my own country of Trinidad and Tobago. Thank you sooo much for sharing this story!

    November 22, 2018

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