It didn’t really sink in until the cab ride from the airport. You see, when you get a job overseas, contact your new employer only once during a 10 minute phone interview, mail out your documents and passport to get a visa, and receive a plane ticket in a foreign language via email, it doesn’t feel real. When you spend the three weeks between job offer and flight in a frenzied state, packing your whole life into four bags and making the necessary preparations for life abroad, it doesn’t feel real. When you say goodbye to your friends and family, you don’t fully comprehend that you wont see them for a year. When you’re on the plane, somehow traveling back in time and into the future simultaneously, unable to actually see where you’re going, it doesn’t feel real. It starts to feel real when what you see and what you feel begins to re-connect with what you know. For me, that happened in a cab. First, it was the GPS. All Korean cabs have GPS navigation systems and Korean GPS systems are the best in the world. These devices know the number of lanes on the roads, what the exits look like, what the speed limit is, and even where there are traffic cameras. If you are speeding and approaching a traffic camera, the GPS warns you by flashing lights and beeping at you. Once you have passed, it stops. It is freaking amazing, and uniquely Korean. But I still wasn’t convinced. The real come-to-Jesus moment happened when we crossed Incheon Bridge. Incheon Bridge, at just over 13 miles, is one of the longest bridges in the world. It spans Incheon harbor, connecting the Incheon airport island to the mainland, and it was completed when I was living in Korea three years ago. After my six month teaching stint, I said goodbye to Korea on a ferry headed for China that passed underneath this incredible structure. It was my last image of the country.
Incheon Bridge was, and is, one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen, and its something I never thought I would see again. So, when the cab pulled out of the airport parking lot and I saw those massive triangle webs rising from the water, I began to realize where I was and what I was doing. I know this country. I know this bridge. What I didn’t know, though, was that I was about to cross it.
Three years ago, as I sailed under the bridge, I was relieved to be leaving. I was tired of working, tired of the big city, and happy to be out on the open road. That relief, with time and distance, slowly turned into a nostalgic yearning to return. That yearning became a fascination, which became an obsession – one that I could not silence or escape. I had to go back. So I tried to find another teaching job. Twice. And I failed. Twice, both times abandoning the idea of returning to Korea, only to have it resurface again with an even stronger desire than before. Then, along came an opportunity. When I took this job I really didn’t know what I was getting into. I knew that I would be working in a Hagwon (private English acadamies notorious for their mistreatment of foreign teachers). I knew the name of the school, my salary and benefits, the location, and that the apartment was “nice.” I knew I would be teaching 7-15 year olds in small classes, but I didn’t know how many classes I would have. The only piece of information that I could cling to with hope was that the foreign teacher I interviewed with had been at the school for three years, and three Korean-ESL years is about ten real-world employment years: a long time for kids my age. So with blind hope I signed the contract. In a haze I prepared to leave my home for a new life abroad. In darkness I flew over the arctic. With a setting sun I rode onto the bridge. I looked out over the harbor and I saw myself three years ago. I saw my ferry churning towards the bridge and me out on the deck waving goodbye to a place I never thought I would see again. As we drove further out the ferry drew closer and closer, our paths set to cross over and beneath each other. In the middle of the main span I stood directly above my old self in an incredible twist of fate that woke me from my surreal slumber. Finally, and with eyes open, it all became real. I’m here. Korea.