Saturday, August 15, 2009

When People Go

As I heard from others before coming to Korea, one of the hardest things about being an ex-pat here is that the vast majority of the people you connect with socially are likely going to be a lot more transient than they are back home - wherever home might be for you.

So far, as I approach the two year mark of my first arrival in Korea, the thought weighs a bit more heavily than it has for sometime, so I thought I'd take a minute or two to write about it.

Yesterday afternoon, I met-up with a friend who joined our hagwon (private school) two months prior to me leaving for Thailand. He is now less than two weeks away from the end of his first year contract. Having been through the measure of a year in Korea already, it's been interesting to watch as others experience the same scope of what it means to live and work here for that length of time. Some of the public school native English teachers that I trained with are remarking about the strangeness of approaching the six month mark and all that it might mean to each of us - some considering staying for another year, others wondering if they might cut-loose a little early. Me, of course, hoping that they all make the choice to stay.

After meeting Oliver in Gangnam yesterday, I headed to Suwon, the place I lived for 14 months from August 2007, to hang-out with two of the best people I've met since coming to Korea - Chris and Jenn, two other teachers who will be heading back to Canada in two weeks today. They share the same apartment that I shared last year, and though this isn't the first time I've returned to that place this year, it was the first time that, out of habit, my head instinctively turned to my left as I entered the lobby door of the apartment building to check if there was any mail for room 302. Crazy.

It was a gloriously nerdish night of Cities & Knights of Catan with two friends I will miss dearly when they go. Then, a trip to a gimgilbang (Korean public bath and sauna) for a steam, shower, swim, soak, water massage, and sleep on a cold tile floor, and here I am now in good old Holly's Coffee, writing to you, dear family.

For me, being here and feeling more frequent pangs of homesickness for the first time since Christmas of 2007, I think that what I have been able to do is "manage" the nostalgia. It's nice to let that stuff flow, but sometimes it's better to keep things in check, lest I get overwhelmed by it and start waxing poetic about obvious metaphors, like climbing a mountain and all that it means. Though those mountains outside my apartment this year are certainly worth writing home about.

Still, it's almost impossible to avoid feeling some sense of loss when people who form your world here return to their own "worlds" from whence they came. It happened last year when some of my best friends (albeit ones formed under "extreme" circumstances) left my life. It's funny - I remember how stand-offish some of them had seemed when we first arrived at our hagwon. Now I get it - they had just said goodbye to a bunch of people they had been close to before Steph and I took-over their contracts. Though you may not be completely aware of it at the time, you get attached. It's tough to imagine this place without the people who made it what it was upon your first experience.

So, that's how it is for me. As I sit in Suwon this morning, I'm thinking about the people I worked with and knew well in the building just behind me. In two weeks, not one teacher and likely only a handful of students will remain from what I knew last last year. That's quite a turn-over, and that's the thing - it's what's done here - what's "normal". That can be a bit of a bummer.

What's more of a bummer is speaking to a good friend who worked and traveled with us last year, who had been working since January in Japan. She's decided to head back home after 10 months as opposed to 12 - not sure of whether or not she will return to Asia, though I really hope that she does. It's mostly selfish, of course, but there was always something comforting about knowing that another person from home was "still doing this thing" that had been described to me last year by more than one person as being "not real", or "losing yourself". Living in Korea, I mean. I think the intended "lesson" is that "real life" is back "home."

Pardon the excessive quotation marks, but I think they accurately reflect my feelings on those terms lately. Home to me, at least until I have a family of my own, should I go down that road, will always be where my family is. "Family" being my mom, dad, sister and her family, my aunt and cousin. I've got a small family - easy to keep track of, though should something zany happen, and my small family scatters further afield, where does that leave my notion of "home"? I'm really not sure, but as I work here and find myself getting further involved in Korea, through language, people, and not limiting myself solely to the English-speaking pockets of Gangnam, Hongdae, and Myeong-dong, I'm really comprehending for the first time the fact, and it is a fact, that life here is as real as you want it to be. There's a big fat cliche for you, but I think it's one worth remembering. I remember being in the Vancouver airport, exchanging money into Korean won, when the lady behind the counter took it upon herself to remind me that I am "Canadian" and that I should be careful not to "get stuck" in Korea. For all those who told me that life here in Korea isn't as "real" as life is back home, I think about the lives these people may have had back "home" and wonder what kind of stick they use to measure the reality" they construct for themselves. Is it really that different from the ones used here in Korea? I'm thinking not. I'm feeling pretty real these days as I continue to live in Korea - notice the lack of quotation marks?

Still, I do miss home, in more ways than I care to write about, but I am happy in my life here in the moment. I hope that enough people I care about hang-around long enough for me to enjoy more than the next six months with them, but we shall see, and that choice isn't up to me. I get nostalgic about last year, but as I said, I'm learning how to manage that feeling into being something more positive than simply mourn what or who is no longer here.

What I am glad about, at least in the people I've been able to spend my time with this year, is that I hear much less blanket condemnations of the country in which I currently live. There are problems here for sure, and said problems seems to grow stronger in an insular place such as Korea - it can be like a petri dish of frustration if you let it. But, I'm also meeting some of the best and most genuine people I have come across, who seem a lot more curious, and hell of a lot less judgmental about Western lifestyles that the majority of us are of them. That's got to count for something. Again, life can be real and full here if you want it to be. I have been fortunate enough this year to have been able to explore more of Korea in the past 6 months than I did in my first 14. That makes a difference.

Well, one full week of vacation left - time for friends, time for planning for semester 2, time for planning a visit from mom and dad in under two months, and time to head to Jeju Island - the Jewel of the East China Sea.


vagabondshandi said...

Hmm. I'm not sure how to frame my response... I guess I'll just say that you are really, really lucky that you're finding so many kind and non-judgemental people to surround yourself with there. That would certainly change your experience. Maybe it would be easier to understand some of the people you mentioned who were more negative if your experience wasn't quite as friendly. I know for myself it made all the difference in the world depending what people were in my life at different times while I was there. Sometimes the people I had around were wonderful and supportive and it was a great experience. Other times there was hardly anyone in my life there that was a real friend in any way, and there was a lot of racism and sexism at every turn. It's a horrible thing to live in a strange land facing that with no support and no friends there, and it's really easy to miss the "reality" of home where you're not so alone and mistreated. So anyway, you're lucky, I'm glad for you.

Jen Davies, MA, CCC said...

We're gonna miss you too, Dave! Been trying not to think about leaving - I'm not good at goodbyes. (I've run into so many people at the Eaton Centre in Toronto, I can't actually believe in goodbyes anyway.)

Was this year real? I think so. I gained 10-15 pounds (not muscle, sadly) that seem real enough! Seriously, though, I think if anyone back home tries to challenge the reality of this year, I'll be pretty ticked off. I met some great real people (you, Dee, Oliver, and others) here. And darnit, I want a reason to go visit Calgary - you're it! -Jen