Saturday, January 1, 2011

Thoughts on Leaving South Korea

It's a new year. Boom. Just like that. 3 months have past since I left South Korea and returned to Canada and my small hometown in northwestern Ontario. I'm almost ashamed at how quickly I have re-acclimatized. I no longer wander dazed through the grocery aisles, completely dumbfounded by the sheer volume of choices, all written in a language I can understand. I've begun to take eating a Subway Sandwich for lunch or grabbing a tea at Timmies for granted. Even the snow and the cold does not bother me. It feels as it always has, like the way winter should be. I do hate North American TV commercials though. I've several times gone to bed grumpy and realized it was simply that I watched some TV and it annoyed the hell out of me.

I do want to spend some time in reflection on how it was to leave Korea, and how it felt to first return home and how it feels now. I don't know how many entries it will take me. But I do intend to make good on my promise to avoid writing entries that take you your entire lunch break to read, so there will be more than one.

During the last two weeks of my time in Korea, I began to feel anxious. There was a big part of my conciousness that did NOT want to leave. I found myself wistfully watching the city go by on my bus rides home from work; the same familiar stops, passing the fruit and vegetable vendors, crossing over the river that divides Suncheon, winding around the roundabout by the train station, reading the names of the love motels in Hanggul and trying to figure out what the English transliteration actually was, and I would be seized by the thought that soon I would not be passing by these people and places as part of my daily routine. Soon the Homeplus, and the Choeun Plaza and the samgypsal restaurant we always went to and the fruit truck guy with the limp who I always bought my oranges from would become unreachable and far away. A small ball of emotion would wind up tight in my stomach, and I wondered, "Am I making a big mistake?"

As I always do before making a big life change, I started to have nightmares about going home: I can't find my plane tickets, I forgot to get all of my money out of my bank account and don't realize it until I'm back in Canada, I arrive home and all of my old friends don't like me anymore(so my expat friends arrive out of nowhere and throw me a party - thus, I shouldn't go because everyone here loves me and what if the folks back home have changed their minds?). Lots of irrational subconscious fear bubbling up and waking me with a start.

I started taking down the artwork in my apartment to force the bareness of the walls on myself, the reality of moving out. I threw a "garage sale" and started emptying my apartment of everything I wasn't shipping or taking with me on the plane. All in a very conscious effort to prepare myself psychologically for leaving. I know myself very well, I procrastinate like crazy and if I didn't start doing these things two weeks in advance, I would find myself 8 hours before my train leaves in hysterics trying to do everything in one night. Even so, I have to ask my friends to come and physically sit on my couch so that I will focus on packing and cleaning and not twiddle away the hours online or whatever else will effectively waste my time.

Chuseok happened to fall during my second last week of classes, giving most NEST's a
full week of holidays. While most of my friends took the opportunity to zip over to Japan or Malaysia or the Phillipines, I stayed home in Korea. I knew that is it was a financial necessity. I'm simply couldn't afford to spend a bunch of money on a trip two weeks before flying home to unemployment. But it was also an emotional and mental necessity. I needed that time to get last minute details sorted out, loose ends tied and just get some rest. I could feel my nerves becoming raw as the time to leave drew nearer. On Chuseok, I went to the centre of the South Korean peninsula with a few friends to go for a very wet and chilly hike at Sognisan National Park. At the end of the week, I went to Chogyesan provincial park just outside of my city and hiked the mountain ridge between Seonnam and Songwan Temples on my own. Not once did I feel lonely. The next day a disappointing attempt to locate Namwon Hot Springs turned into a really charming trip around the Namwon Folk Village. I had checked everything I could off my list, and done plenty of hiking and local tourism. That uneasy feeling will go away now, right?

During my last week of teaching, I got many sweet letters from students and kind gifts from co-workers. We held a volleyball game on Wednesday, and Kwangja made sure they saved me some pizza, which she had specially ordered for me since I don't really like the spicy raw fish salad type stuff they always get. After the game, my principal, vice-principal and a male co-worker took me out for a delicious galbi meal and we laughed and talked and sang together over the bbq. On Friday, the school cancelled my classes so that I could spend the day running around like a chicken with my head cut off getting administrative loose ends tied up with my co-teacher - loose ends that were present because she is also a procrastinator apparently. As the day wound down and I started to say real goodbye's to my Korean co-workers, I waited for emotion to overtake me. I wanted it to. I wanted to be released from the anxiousness that had been building for weeks. I wanted to feel nothing but anticipation for the flight home. I wanted to feel nothing but excited to see my family and old friends and hometown again. And to be sure, I felt sad, I felt sentimental. But no tears came.

That night, I went to the Jinju lantern festival. It was a perfect way to end my time in Korea. The Jinju Lantern Festival was the first festival I attended in Korea, it was my first introduction to Korean culture in its many forms. And it remained the most beautiful festival I ever attended while in Korea. The realization of my last weekend in Korea was with me, like a fog I could not get out of. I had accepted it. And yet the uneasy feeling remained with me.

Saturday was the night of my going away party. I had designated it a "James Bond Themed Party" in hopes that all my friends would get dressed up and I go home with some great photos. They did not disappoint. We went to dinner at a Vietnamese Roll restaurant that has amazing food. I was shocked by the number of people that came. So was the restaurant's owner. As we ate dinner, as we got ready for a night out on the town, as we began to enjoy ourselves at San Antonio's, as we sang our hearts out at my favourite noraebong, it was dawning on me the reason my anxiety was still clinging to me. I loved Korea, I loved my tiny little Shit-tae apartuh, I loved my school. But I could be at peace with leaving them. I could let them go. What I could not really accept, what my heart would not let me feel at ease with was leaving these people. The phenomenal group of people I have been so fortunate as to become friends with while I worked and lived and grew in Korea. I owe so much of that adventure, and my own growth to them. I have met many kindred spirits in my life, but never have I found so many all in one place. I've never felt so nurtured and accepted as by these people. And leaving them, that was truly scary and truly heartrending.

Even as the night wore on into the morning, and people began to call it a night, I delayed the inevitable: "We'll meet for coffee tomorrow, no need to say goodbye now!"

We did indeed meet up for coffee, and I managed not to cry until the very end of that last social gathering. Once the damn was broken though, I needed to get back to my apartment for a good cry. Despite all my best efforts, there was still much to do before I would be ready to leave in the morning. So, with many mixed emotions I kept one eye on the clock as I cleaned and packed up the last of my things.

to be continued....

1 comment:

  1. Wow. You described the whole leaving Asia experience so well (for those who see it as home). It's now 4 years after Taiwan and we still reminisce about our life there almost every day! It's a good thing you have this blog to refer back to :)