Sunday, August 11, 2013

안녕히계세요, Korea!

In March of 2011 I was sitting in my friend's kitchen in Arizona late one night sipping tequila and talking about our futures (because those two mix all too well). There were three of us, all recent college graduates and all trying to navigate the beginning of our 'adult' lives. Both of them were teachers finishing up their first year. I was coming off of a bad car accident and a 6-month stint of unemployment and sleeping on my brother's bunk bed. One of the teachers, Danielle, is a good friend of mine. We've been friends since elementary school, and she seems to know what I'm thinking and how I should be feeling before I do. Her and her friend Sarah were talking about teaching jobs abroad. Danielle had made some close Korean friends in college, and she's always had the idea of taking a year or two to teach overseas.

It sounded like an awesome adventure, and the next morning I found a recruiting agency in Korea and started sending out applications. I wasn't expecting much: at that time, my college graduation swagger was shattered by unemployment. Fortunately, I didn't have to wait too long. Within a couple days I was talking to Joseph and Hero at HandsKorea. Within a week, my documents were being processed. And, within a month, I had my first job offer and was prepping to go. Danielle and Sarah shortly followed, and we met regularly (and still do) while working and living here in Korea.

That was two and a half years ago. Now I'm less than two weeks from returning to the United States...possibly for good.

I've hit that critical point where I can see the end. It's coming. I've always known about it. I've had my flight booked for months now, and I always knew that all of this was temporary. But that last day has always been far away in the distance, just out of sight and out of mind. Now it's real, and things are starting to happen. I've already shipped boxes home, transferred contracts over, moved out...it's all coming so fast.

I'm not old by any means (I turn 25 tomorrow, in case you wanted to send me some cake or something), but I'm getting old enough to have enough experiences to look back on and realize how damn lucky I've been. Decisions, both good and bad, have brought me here. I'm leaving Korea, and I'm not sure when I'm coming back. It's been incredibly special looking back at my time here, and I'm not quite sure how to say goodbye.

I'll give it a shot though :)
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Dear Korea,

It's been an incredible couple of years, and I can't tell you how thankful I am for you letting me come here and share in this wonderful adventure. And, let me tell you...it's been a crazy adventure. One for the books, that's for sure.

I'm very aware of how lucky I am, yet I'm still surprised by how even the smallest decisions can change the course of a life. I was very close to not coming here at all. When I first applied to work here, I was beat out at the last minute because the school wanted a woman instead of a man. It was 2 weeks before I was scheduled to fly here. That was the first time I experienced those last-minute changes that Korean culture is famous for.

I didn't like it at the time, but looking back I realized it set me up with Wawoo Middle School and meeting Juhee. She hired me at the last minute, and the next thing I knew I was on a plane coming here.

Stepping off that plane in Incheon was one of the scariest moments of my life. New language, new culture, and not knowing where I was or where I was going takes some time to get use to. I'm just now learning how to deal with uncertainty. I was dropped off at an apartment in a small town in the middle of the night, scared and alone. I turned on the lights, and that's when I realized that everything was going to be ok.

Sitting there on the table of my new apartment was a note from Juhee. She welcomed me to Korea and left me a towel, some little toiletries, and a plant. She let me know that she'd pick me up the next morning to show me the school and meet her family. I didn't know what to expect. I expected my co-teacher to simply be a co-worker of mine...I never thought I'd find such a welcoming place this far away from home.

The next day I was off to meet my new co-teacher and school. I was nervous, but your country has proven to me time and time again how, if you let it, this culture will embrace you with open arms. Every person I met that day shook my hand, smiled, and warmly greeted me to their country. Even though I was 22 and had never taught in a classroom a day in my life, everyone told me how they looked forward to seeing how I would teach at Wawoo Middle School.

Over the course of that year, Juhee and Wawoo Middle School gave me not only a job...but a home away from home. Juhee's family was an extended part of my family. My classroom, as crazy as middle school classes could be, became a comfort zone for me. I loved teaching and talking with the kids there. I learned about your culture in bite sized chunks, like playing with traditional Korean toys in between classes or eating something new for dinner.

It was that hospitality that led me to come back here after spending a summer at home. There was a new job doing something in my field, and I was well prepared this time for that initial culture shock.

That next year was less about you and more about self improvement and learning about myself. I was slowly making you my home. I could finally read your language and speak a little bit. Your food no longer frightened me, and now I instinctively take my shoes off before going into someone's house. I was working a job that I was under-qualified for and every day was a struggle to just survive. While I did survive there (making plenty of mistakes along the way), I also knew deep in my heart that working in Korea wasn't for me.

Although you had been incredibly welcoming and I had carved a little home for myself here, I knew that this place could never truly be home for me. Your country is moving incredibly fast. In 60 years, you've come from extreme poverty to build a first world nation that, in many ways, is much better than my country back home. Each generation is drastically different from the last, yet somehow you maintain a harmony between your past and your future. Here, culture and tradition matter. Each and every thing you do has a meaning. I not only learned to accept this, but respect and love it (even among all the cultural hiccups along the way). You pay respect to those that have long gone, and you are constantly looking ahead and continue to move at a breakneck pace. I admire this, and I look forward to seeing what you accomplish in the next 60 years.

Yet, as a foreigner, I can never legally call this place home. No matter how long I live here, I'll never be Korean. I don't need acceptance, but I do need equality. And, as much as I love this culture, I know that I'll never be equal. I'll never fit in.

That's not to diminish the experiences I've had here. While I'll never be equal in the workplace or in the eyes of the law, I'm easily accepted by my friends here. We've built strong relationships in such a short time, and I've surrounded myself with some truly amazing individuals. There's been alot of love, and you're part of my family too. That's why it makes saying goodbye that much harder.

It was here that I rediscovered my love for traveling and how it teaches you empathy for others. I learned what I was capable of under repressive conditions, and I can't wait to see what I can do in the future. I discovered how important family and friends are, and that those relationships are more important than any job. I fell in love for the first time...something I've been successfully avoiding for 23 years. It really is an unexplainable feeling, and I now know why poets and writers struggle writing about love. It's alot to experience in in 2 years, and I'm incredibly thankful you brought me along for the ride.

When I visit a new country, I always buy a flag and hang it on my wall. Each one carries with it a set of memories that I cherish. They're easily recalled with a simple glance. With your flag, however, I have to hang it right next to my own. There are too many wonderful memories to recall. That's the closest definition to 'home' I've come up with, and you'll always be home to me no matter how many years go by and where I end up next.

I hope to see you again later down the road. I still believe that our paths aren't bound by destiny or the decisions we made in the past. We can go anywhere we want to go and be anyone we want to be, all while cherishing the memories that made us who we are today. I'm sure we'll gravitate towards one another again someday. Until then, I wish you all the best. I'll be watching and rooting for you, and I hope to see you do great things in the years to come!

- Ryan

1 comment:

  1. EPIC! I always love your writing. Happy birthday, my favorite America author!

    ReplyDelete