When I left Korea last summer, I was in limbo about whether or not I would be returning for another year of teaching. I eventually decided against coming back for a second year. Not to say I didn’t enjoy my time there but overall, living in Korea just wasn’t for me. But because of my indecisiveness, I never got the closure I needed. I felt guilty for leaving Korea without saying a proper goodbye to those who helped me create a home-away-from-home. People find goodbyes rather depressing but for me, they are crucial moments in our interactions with the people whom we cherish. We forget that when we say our farewells, we’re actually wishing someone the best in life as they move on, with or without us. Goodbyes are not as final as we make them out to be. They’re more like placeholders in time, so that one day, we’ll be able to pick up where we left off.
After five months of being away from Korea, I came back for a week to bid a fond farewell to the life I had there and to the family I had made there. The family I allude to were the ones who shared all these spectacular moments with me in a country we were all trying to make sense of. In the short span of a year, we hiked mountains together, grilled meat with one another, and even mastered the art of interpretive dance in hopes that Koreans might understand us better! We befriended one another despite our differences in age, culture, lifestyles, and even languages (I’m looking at you Afrikaners!)
My goodbyes were filled with love, generosity, and joy — emotions so opposite to the ones we associate with goodbyes. I was wined-and-dined, given beds to host my homeless self, and one friend did a moving rendition of Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” dedicated to my return/departure. I went back to my old school and surprised all my students and coworkers who were overjoyed to see me! I was passed around in a sea of hugs and high fives. I mean, not to toot my own horn, but there is no better feeling in the world that seeing how missed you are. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to start my 2016 year off.
Goodbyes are also accompanied by a massive amount of thank yous because when is there a more perfect time to tell people how much you appreciate them than when you are saying goodbye? Firstly, I am thankful that I found kindred spirits among radiant South Africans. They are a spirited and lively bunch who have a passion for togetherness, family, red meat, and God. I felt so akin to them and I cannot thank them enough for adopting me as one of their own and for providing sustenance to my heart (through their friendship), my mind (through their unending words of encouragement), and to my soul (through their uplifting prayers). They also get a round of applause for introducing me to the more evolved form of a grilled cheese, the braiibroodjie.
I am also thankful to all the friends who shared their time with me, especially to the ones who worked at hagwons (cram schools) where free time is a luxury. One of my favorite parts about living in Korea was there was never a shortage of new places to discover. They have an impressive amount of cafes in Korea and I was never bored with the selection. During my visit, I finally got to eat at Moru, the beloved breakfast spot that has been on my Daejeon bucket list. It specializes in slow food, a Konglish word indicating that the food is prepared upon request as opposed to pre-made. The portions were overly generous and highly gluttonous… I mean, they serve their french toast with bacon and sugared almonds! If I had found out about this place sooner, it would’ve been the death of me. I also spent a wonderful evening with my girl Ilmarie at Holy Cross, a spacious yet intimate cafe. We devised the phrase “fat-happy” to describe when one’s physical appearance matches a super happy attitude as we “fat-happily” ate an affogato and chocolate waffles.
I am thankful for all the things I accrued in Korea, especially the free ones! The second purpose of our trip back to Korea was to collect our belongings that we had left at Tim’s mom’s house. Because I’m such a sentimentalist, I was completely overwhelmed trying to downsize all my things into one large suitcase to take with me to Vietnam. But taking the time to sift through my things showed me how much I value the memories that all my things possess. Korea is known for its shopping culture but its mainly because most things in Korea cannot be bought anywhere in the world! I was introduced to a cafe called U:Dally, which is popular among the locals because all their drinks are served in neat tumblers that you can takeaway as a souvenir. The concept of getting free things in Korea actually has a name; they call it “seobiseu” (서비스 ). Most establishments practice “seobisue” to keep their customers happy and it definitely works. Honestly, where else in the world would you get free things just because…?
And lastly, I am thankful for all the beautiful memories that Korea gave me. As a child, I remember asking the universe to give me a good memory for everyday I was alive and it acquiesced. Because of this, I have 365 days of great memories in Korea. Don’t get me wrong; being an expat is no walk in the park. There were times when I was lonely, exhausted, disgruntled, and just about ready to leave. But even though every day wasn’t good, there was always something good in every day. In Korea, I met the most important person in my life, my boyfriend Tim. I witnessed the most calming sunsets during long days. I got to spend more times outdoors and fell in love with nature. I also was able to nurture young minds who in turn, taught me lessons about responsibility and creativity. Each day, I found a reason to smile.
As someone told me once, you’re in a happy place when you…
At times, I might not have loved Korea but it was necessary for my self-growth. Places, as well as people, serve a purpose and I have recognized Korea’s purpose in my life was to teach me to never forget the good despite what hardships I may face. I can finally say goodbye to Korea and close the door on that chapter in my life as I move on to new horizons. Kamsamnida Korea, thank you everything.