Thoughts on Leaving Korea
In between rambling paragraphs on this long-winded topic, I’ve included a collection of files from my video archive. It might be obvious from some of the posts, but I take a lot of short film clips of things that I see on my travels. Some of them don’t make the cut, but I think they’re worth sharing.
On my last full day in Korea, I woke up in my friend’s apartment in Donghae. We’d gotten together for one more movie night just like the old days. The last week of my time here has been like that: trying to do those last couple things that I love one more time before I go, walking the old routes that I knew, and saying goodbye.
Some trot (what I like to call Korean disco) on the walking path behind my apartment in Donghae (February ’14).
I stayed a couple days after my contract ended at school, and I’m glad I did; it takes a little time to send money home, mail that last box of things that don’t fit in the suitcase, and close a bank account. Things were pretty hectic when I was trying to get everything cleaned and cleared out of the apartment before I was supposed to move. Since then, I keep forcing myself to stop thinking about the next step and just look around at where I am.
I suppose I’ve lived in Korea for so long that I take it for granted these days. I have changed so much since I arrived at Incheon three years ago, but it’s been such a long process that I hardly seemed aware of it.
For starters, I’ve realized—now that I’m living out of a very pared-down suitcase—that I dress with much more consideration than I used to. In university, I would just throw on whatever was clean, brush my hair, and go. Koreans take a lot of care with their appearances, and they’ll comment on yours if they notice something un-Korean about it. (Like, um, everything?) I still don’t much care if other people approve of my attire or not, but I care whether I actually like what I am wearing. We’ve had a couple seriously hot days—32º C!—and it’s been too hot for me to cover my upper arms for the sake of the children and offended old ladies.
(On another note, I am now well-versed in Celsius and the metric system. Dear USA: Get with the program!)
Many people in Korea seems to dress in similar ways and do similar things. I’ve seen my students change their answers in class because they were different from what the other kids were saying. Living here as long as I have has really impressed on me the need for diversity—especially in the media. In a country as uniform as Korea, TV and films are some of the only ways that locals can be exposed to other cultures and ways of thinking, which bring new ideas. Sometimes stereotypes are all that Koreans have to go off of, and this can be really hurtful. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had some gross old man leer at me because women who look at me (in that they are blond-haired and Caucasian) are “easy” in the movies they’ve watched. But this is nothing to the way people of color get treated. I didn’t understand the true meaning of white privilege until I moved to a country where I was a racial minority.
A rogue octopus at the Bukpyeong Five-Day Market in Donghae. A surprisingly accurate metaphor for my feelings as a perpetually-observed foreigner in Korea (January ’14).
In some ways, I’ve become more reserved, and in others I’m more open. When someone I don’t know approaches me in the street, I get suspicious. Usually, strangers don’t strike up a conversation unless they want something: an English conversation partner, a hookup, a picture... (In many cases, people haven’t asked for this third item.) On the other hand, when you’re getting to know new teachers, it’s more effective to be forthright. I used to feel like I had to guard myself with people I met through work or social events before I could let them get to know me. These days I’m less concerned with what people think of me, so it’s easier to socialize. When I chat with other travelers in a guesthouse on vacation, being myself allows me to make stronger connections more quickly. I’ve made some pretty good friends on vacation—some of whom I’ve even visited again while traveling around Asia.
Toy dragons at a store in Hong Kong (February ’15).
This brings me to my next item: being able to travel alone. Planning a trip to Taiwan when you speak no Mandarin and have no plans to meet anyone while there is certainly a good way to boost in your anxiety—and your subsequent confidence when things turn out fine in the end. I’m so comfortable with booking flights and accommodations that I sometimes don’t think too much about it. (Citation: That weekend I spent in Jeonju, for which I booked a hotel room for the night after I planned to arrive. Oops. Thankfully, this is the only time I’ve done this.)
I’ve become a bit of a procrastinator since I started working here. This is a side-effect of living in a society where schedule changes often occur at the last minute. Twice this last semester, I sat at my desk on a Wednesday morning with a cup of coffee, ready to leisurely get to work before my first class third period—only to have a co-teacher rush into the office and tell me we were supposed to have class right now, and could I come upstairs because the students were waiting outside the English classroom?
On the other hand, I’m much more flexible, resourceful, and resilient for these reasons. There’s nothing that destroys your self-esteem like being a soft-hearted young woman teaching in a high school setting. I still look like a high school student, and I probably will until my wrinkles get too deep to ignore. Teenagers, with their usual unwillingness to obey figures of authority, have had a field day trying to test their boundaries with me. At first their rudeness really stung, but after a while I realized that the opinions of a bunch of unhappy kids didn’t much matter to me. That said, I really enjoyed teaching high school; I loved the conversations I would get into with my higher-level students.
I’m like these little guys at the Robot Museum in Chuncheon—I get knocked down, but I get up again (April ’14).
Speaking of wrinkles, I feel like teaching has aged me horribly. Where did all my energy go?
I’ll say one more negative change, and then a big positive.
The negative: I have almost no faith in institutions anymore. After having my job cut here (twice), I have a lot of difficulty believing that something will line up until it is a physical reality. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why it’s taken me so long to acknowledge that I’m actually leaving Korea, without any job or apartment to return to. It definitely has something to do with the reason why I work so independently and take on a lot of responsibility.
At the same time, it means I’m that much more grateful when things pan out, or I find kindness in unexpected places. Sometimes your colleagues come through for you big time, like my main co-teacher this last week. Sometimes a stranger wishes you good luck on your next step. Sometimes a friend offers to let you stay at her home while you’re in her town, and will show you around when you hadn’t expected it.
And I am lucky to have many friends, from all around the world. People come and go a lot in Korea, and I’ve said goodbye so many times. It’s my turn now. But knowing that my friends here are all travelers like me, I always say how confident I am that we’ll see each other again. I’ve already had invitations to come back and visit for the Winter Olympics. Hey, why not?
Catching the tail end of the bell at Waseda University, Haruki Murakami’s alma mater in Tokyo (January ’15).
As for me, my next stop is graduate school, where I’ll be studying creative writing. I’m grateful for my teaching job in Korea, and it’s changed me a lot (mostly for the better), but being here has proved to me more strongly than ever that being a writer is what I most want to do. It’s a little scary to chase after your dreams, but I’ve got the incentive to do it. Three years in Korea went by like lightning. I’m not willing to wait any longer to do what I need to do.
This is the end of the blog, but not the end of my writing about Korea. I’ve drafted some short stories inspired by my time here, and there are more that have yet to take form. Someday, when I’ve processed all of this, I’ll probably write a book. For now, I have to make the long flight across the Pacific once more.
Thanks for sticking with me. I hope to see you again sometime, too.