I had romanticized being reunited with South Korea since the day I left August 25, 2013.
Closing that chapter in my life living abroad in Korea was a difficult one. It wasn’t an easy decision to pack up all of my belongings and move back home to Connecticut but I knew that the time had come. All of my friends were finishing their contracts and putting the pieces together to build a new life elsewhere. What would I be staying for?
South Korea was the place I had called home since I graduated university. It was the place where I learned how to pay all of bills.It was the place that was kind enough to me on Christmas eve to add a full book of passport pages before I flew to Thailand on a last minute trip. It was the place where I had my first “real job”. It was the place where I conquered my fears.It was the place where I had covered all the land quite literally. I visited every province, almost every city, almost every national park, and even venturing out to Ulleung and Dokdo Islands. It was the place I had paid off all of my student loans. It was the place that felt so lonely at times but full of people I knew that cared for me. I knew that one day I would go back and visit.It was the place where I failed to understand everything but somehow felt that I knew everything about Korea. That was one thing I knew for sure.
Fast forward to September 2016 and I was picking up my checked bags and going through immigration at Incheon Airport. All around me were Koreans. All around me were whispers of a language I could barely understand. “yogi-yo” (Come here)… I heard in the crowds as I gathered my bags in search of the AREX (Airport Railroad) to Seoul Station. Shuffling through the crowds of families and more Koreans I felt a bit out of place. I didn’t look like them. I didn’t speak like them. Did I still know them?
Spotting a 7-11 convenience store with bright florescent lights I remembered my dedication to my favorite Denmark Yoghurt drink. Quickly grabbing the last yoghurt off the shelf and checking out, an expressionless young high school kid rung me out. Really? My disappointment was slowly starting to build up as I walked out looking and recognizing all of my favorite korean snacks. Really giddy to find the counter to book my AREX ticket and kind of bouncing around with all of my excitement I booked my AREX ticket with the lady at the desk. I was explaining my excitement with her about reunited with South Korea after three years. I felt compelled to share the reason as to why I was in Korea. Blank expressions. Bland “ok’s” and “I see” mumbled back at me as she handed me my ticket. Really? I wanted to just flop on the floor and cry. What exactly had I romanticized about visiting Korea specifically? Oh wait, that wasn’t what I was expecting. That’s not how this was supposed to play out.
Looking out the window from Seoul Station all of the skyrises and LG and Samsung apartment complexes all mirrored one another. Soon the open land of rice fields swallowed up the emptiness that would follow. The countryside of Gyeonggi province looked empty. Quiet. Quite like how Anyge looked. A place that I’m not sure I could ever visit again. Rewind to six years ago that was my first stomping ground village where my emptiness swallowed me alive. Studying the land carefully out the window as we glided by villages and mountains we soon arrived in Gumi.
Arriving at Gumi station was a surreal feeling. It was my home for a year of my life. I thought back then that I had the best life. I lived right behind Gumi station and stones throw from downtown. Reaching the top of the escalator I checked all my heavy suitcases into a locker and with high expectations booked it to the same coffee shop where I use to for language exchange and coffee. My korean friend Eunye owned it but married a Swiss man so now resides in France so her mom operates it. There at the front counter was Eunhye’s mom. I have met her many times before. Her English was almost non existent but I always sat in her coffee shop with her daughter while she was in the back. My mouth was running a mile a minute in my own excitement and adrenaline to see her and pop in to say hi. All of Eunye’s travel photos were still on the wall and I was standing in the past. I was anticipating something more than a “nothing” response. Hmm… so I took the steps down Gumi station to a familiar hair salon that I use to visit.
The same round figured jolly lady who I once shared deep and challenging conversation on New Years Eve with was standing at the counter. I couldn’t believe my own eyes.”Your here!” I had forgotten her name but knew exactly who she was. “Hi! Remember me! You curled my hair a few years ago but we talked a lot and you use to live in Ireland. I didn’t forget you!” I was literally filled with so much excitement to rekindle the past and share the picture of my hair that she styled so beautifully on my tablet. Holding the picture and asking her how she was I sank in confusion to receive next to nothing in terms of an expression, response, or acknowledgement for my present and excitement to see her. My “homecoming” reunion was seriously cracking right in front of me. To have been out of the country for three years now was realizing that Korea didn’t change. I was the once who had changed.
Reflecting on my week long jaunt with Korea was highlighted by my visit with a coworker from the last school I taught at. Jeong Im is my moms age but she opened her roomy apartment to me with open arms in Chilgok. Meeting me at the new tram station with bright hiking wear (totally ajumma style) the real Korea I knew was coming back. Treating me to a vegetarian restaurant we retreated back to her place eating and reminiscing over korean grapes which was purely nostalgia. Korean grapes are so deeply purple and a sweet taste of heaven in your mouth. Drinking chinese green tea on the floor and chatting I felt a rumbling that shook the whole room. A 4.5 magnitude earthquake had struck Gyeongju with aftershocks reaching the rest of the Korean peninsula.
The following day we found ourselves viewing the big city of Daegu from the tram that was recently built. Getting off at Seomun Market we toured the food stalls taking in the scents of fresh fruits in big red bowls, tteokbokki cooking over the stove, and ajummas selling hanbok. This was the Korea that I couldn’t wait to be familiar with again. Jeong Im and I settled on a small ondol style restaurant that served haemul kalguksu (seafood noodles). The warm steam made my nose run like crazy and the cold that I had been fighting for five days now was starting to heal. Seomun Market was a place I use to pass by when I use to visit Daegu. Our afternoon venture was so familiar and I loved it.
Jeong Im had recently retired and opened her own Korean style Jimjilbang spa. She had prepared all these wonderful spa treatments for me. With both of her kids moved out I felt like the third child she now had. Being treated with all these glorious spa treatments was I a princess for the day? I needed my tiara. After dripping sweat in the sauna a spa “menu” was prepared for me. Warm sweet potato, korean grapes, and a hard boiled egg with hot water. I will never forget the way that I felt in this moment. I could never come up with a gift savvy enough to wrap up my gratitude to Jeong Im in a box. No present could ever express how Jeong Im made me feel while I visited with her. Maybe I should just consider writing her a nice note and mailing it to her.
The following afternoon we reunited with teachers over warm songpyeon and an orange vitamin C drink (korean style). Sitting at my old desk that was once mine that faced the principal three years ago gave me a rush of old memories that were once my reality at that time.Every day sitting at my desk not understanding what anybody was talking about lost in translation while facing the principal was truly comical. I met the new principal introducing myself and listening him ramble to me about who knows what because well, I don’t speak Korean. I should have learned Korean beyond just learning the alphabet. Sharing a steaming hot of seafood, side dishes, and warm rice with Mina and Hyun Ji who were my main coteachers at Jinpyeong Middle School really encapsulated the entire reason for why I went back to Korea. To share deep engaging conversation, laughing, and chatting together the past and present. Sharing with them where I am today. Telling my struggles with missing Korea. Explaining who I am today. This is the Korea I missed.
My visit to Korea surprised me. I think I expected everybody to be just as ecstatic as I was to visit a place I use to live. A foreign friend once told me that Korea was always going to be there. I was the one who had changed and change after all is not a bad thing.