My first year.
April 2, 2013 § 3 Comments
It’s been one month since I left Korea, and already my life there feels like a distant memory. I’ve been hunkering down in Walsall, a suburb of Birmingham, UK, eating roast dinners, apple crumble, and every kind of fried potato you can imagine. My initial excitement at eating western food again has been generously accepted by my body, giving me an extra 10+ pounds to my overall physique. (It might be time to reign it in.)
The last time I wrote, I was preparing to go to China, and I can say without a doubt that it was one of the greatest trips I have experienced thus far in my life. In Beijing, I met up with an old friend from my university days in England, walked Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall, and ate Peking duck on Christmas Day. I tried scorpion, starfish, centipede, snake, cricket, and sheep’s penis (although that last one was more by mistake than anything). Though I had to wear around 8 layers every day to face the cold (it was well under 0 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind), the weather made Shanghai’s rainy days feel like a warm breeze.
As we traveled further south, each city welcomed us with even more beautiful sights and delicious food. I was lucky enough to spend some quality time with familiar faces I knew from back home in the US, as one of my best friend’s brothers had been studying in Shanghai for the last 6 months. He acted as an indispensable guide, showing us around the city and taking us for soup dumplings, which Shanghai is famous for. Visually, it had a distinctly western feel to it, and I can definitely see why Shanghai is nicknamed “The Paris of the East.” If it weren’t for all the Chinese people surrounding me, I could have been in London or Vienna or any other number of European cities.
Our last stop was Hong Kong, which was by far the best out of all three. The food, the people, the sights — everything had a familiarity to it that made me feel like I was rediscovering an old home. Walking the same streets that my father had walked over 30 years ago gave me this sense of connectedness that sort of transcended time — like he wasn’t so far away even though logic would dictate otherwise. Trying to imagine what Nathan Road looked like when he used to walk it every day wasn’t too difficult, as every dilapidated building I saw I’m pretty sure was constructed in the ’70s. Each one was neighbored by shiny, more modern architecture, making the contrast between what Hong Kong used to be and what it evolved into even stronger . I ate fresh pineapple buns for breakfast and had roast pork at every turn, drank bubble tea and skipped along the Avenue of Stars beside Victoria Bay. We had dim sum and cha chaan teng, mango pancakes and sago, and each dish I tried seemed better than the last. (Are you sensing a theme yet in my travels?)
Though China was an amazing experience, returning to Korea truly felt like coming home, especially since I was suddenly able to once again read and speak (if only a little bit) the language of the country I was in. I never thought I’d feel so grateful to see hanguel!
As every month has since I arrived in February 0f 2012, my last 2 months in Korea absolutely flew by. Before I knew it, I was packing up my apartment and saying goodbye to my classes for the last time. I may have even shed a tear at some point.
When I think about the past year, I can only see good things– the amazing friends I made who became my family, the students I taught who felt like my kids, the places I traveled that hold so many of my fondest memories. Part of me wishes I had someone or something tangible to thank, because my gratitude for the life I have experienced in this last year is so great that I feel like I need to unload it onto one thing, to show respect and appreciation for it in a singular, immense way. If I could give a bouquet of flowers and homemade cupcakes to a country, I would. And Korea would be it. Living there has taught me so much about myself and the person I have become, as well as the person I want to continue to evolve into. It has shown me love in so many forms, from the friends I danced with ’til 4 am, to the students who wrote me farewell cards, and the coworkers who continue to keep in touch. It has warmed me with the exceeding kindness of its people and surprised me with its unending natural beauty. It is a place that will remain dear to me for the rest of my life, if only because it has shown me what’s possible when you open yourself to living an entirely new reality, and for that I am forever thankful.
All of this is not to say, however, that I have been happy 100% of the time. I have missed certain things back home that sometimes make me wish I hadn’t left at all (or could at least have developed some sort of teleport by now). For example, my nephew, who was only 8 months old when I left, is now approaching his 2nd birthday, and seeing pictures of him eating cake on his 1st without me is heart-breaking. I’ve missed my sister’s high school graduation, my brother’s completion of his undergrad degree, Christmas, Thanksgiving, the annual family trip to NYC for Chinese New Year, and countless other important holidays and events that, had I been home, I would have been thrilled to attend. Having to watch from thousands of miles away (or sometimes not being able to watch at all) has left me feeling hollow at times, like perhaps I shouldn’t have been where I was in that moment. It was at these times that I felt most homesick. But the days pressed on, and I realized that though painful as missing these occasions was, being in Korea and doing what I set out to do gave me a deeper sense of personal accomplishment than anything I could have achieved back home. Slowly but surely, I was acting out my dream of seeing the world and experiencing all it has to offer first hand. Coming to Korea and teaching English was doing right by me, and I have not an inkling of regret when I think about what I’ve missed compared to what I’ve gained during my time there.
Though I only left 4 weeks ago, there are so many things I already miss about Korea and the way I felt when I was there. This is part of the reason I have decided to do a second year there, and though I know a second year provides infinite opportunities to be as incredible and magnificent as the last, part of me feels like I am already starting to prematurely compare it to the first. I know there is no way it will be the same as the last 12 months, but I am hoping that though it may be different, it will still give me plenty of reasons to smile and plenty of chances to grow as a daughter, sister, aunt, girlfriend, and overall human being. Korea, I’ll see you soon.