Nothing has coalesced. I think it’s time to stop waiting for that to happen. It’s five months later and Korea still exists in fragments: friends here, days there, sights and smells and memories, scattered. I thought, maybe, to find some meaning in it; some statement to make or some way it changed the course of my life, but I haven’t. Things are back to normal, but for the days I miss my second home.
I returned to Charlottesville on December 27th, to a New Year’s party waiting for me a few days later. All of my friends were there, welcoming me and the new year simultaneously. It was so good to see them again, and it really was like I never left. Kyle and Natasha came down from DC, their new home, and I learned about their new lives. Ben and Jenny were there, existing as an established entity, and I heard how they had grown together. Mike and Caitlin showed up, in the midst of a grueling business school run and happy to take a break for a night. For the party, Lee and his brothers, Will and James, had re-commissioned their old, homemade New Years ball, and we gathered around on the Downtown Mall below to watch them drop it off the roof of Lee’s apartment. No one asked me much about Korea, and I loved not talking about it. It was a late night, a great night, and a perfect welcome home.
Within two weeks, I was back at my old job slinging coffee to the Charlottesville masses. Most of my old friends were still working there, with a few welcomed additions. I remembered the regulars, and they, me, and we spoke of my yearlong sabbatical. Even ringing up new customers was a joy. It’s much easier to have 100 five-second conversations every day than it is to lead six 50-minute ones. As for the job itself, making coffee is like riding a bike: so easily recalled, even after a long absence.
One thing I did notice was that I came back from Korea with a newfound patience. It was almost like living in a haze; like walking through life with eyelids drawn half closed, but through which everything is clearer. Conversations, with friends and strangers alike, were easier and more interesting, words and thoughts moving with a deliberate fluidity. Traffic didn’t bother me as it once did. Farmland was greener, the sky was bluer, and I noticed. Grocery stores were heaven, their shelves stocked with things I knew. All I wanted was to live slowly and with intent – to go to work, to be with my friends and family, and to shop at Whole Foods. I went to the Asian markets in town, too, and learned to cook some delicious Korean dishes. I was happy to be home.
And yet, even now, there is a lingering sadness. Not the pain of something lost, but of something left. My students are still in Korea. My friends, my coffee shops, and my markets are still there. My city is still there, and I know where to find it. My self, on the other hand, is a little harder to locate. Sure, (until recently) I was in Charlottesville, and I was loving it there. I had more friends than I had ever had; I had a job that I could love while I was there and leave when I was not; I had a girl who I liked and who liked me and who I got to see all the time; I had a beautiful home that I didn’t pay for, and I lived with and near my family, whom I love. And yet, there is a lingering sadness. Not the pain of something lost, but of something left. Part of me is still in Korea.
As you probably know, I was very sick for over half of my time there. I was less able to go out, less able to meet people, and less able and to explore. I was less inclined to enjoy my job, less inclined to appreciate my apartment, and less inclined to love my neighborhood. But still, I loved living in Korea. The friends I made were special, the discoveries I made were pure, and the experiences I stumbled upon were unforgettable. Yes, it was lonely and uncomfortable. In fact, during the worst of it, I would fall into bed at night after work, amazed that I had had enough energy to stand and teach, surprised to still be alive, and curious as to whether or not I would wake in the morning. But through all of that hardship, there were moments that made it all worthwhile.
I celebrated Buddha’s birthday at one of his temples, with a friend and a thousand lanterns. I drunkenly danced the Andong Mask Dance in front of two hundred laughing Korean spectators. I taught my students how to make ranch eggs. I walked along the Tancheon River at night with one dear friend, and played guitar on the banks of the Han River with another. I got to know the owner of my favorite coffee shop. I scored three touchdowns in a flag football game. I drank beer and smoked hookah with a new friend at our first meeting; a night which lasted well into the morning. I ate an entire crab, just offloaded from the boat, while the chef watched. I walked across bridges, I froze in a garden of neon, and I broke the rope in a massive game of tug-of-war. I climbed mountains and looked out across my favorite city in the world, lighting up the night for miles.
These moments are what I have taken from Korea, and I am forever grateful, for they are some of the best of my entire life. But there can be no taking without giving. Each of us walks our own thin line through the world, trading footprints for memories. These memories become firmly entrenched, carving deeper and deeper into our stone, sculpting who we are. And while I have taken these memories, I have left my chiseled fragments scattered on Korea’s surface. With time and distance, they sink deeper and deeper into the earth, forming an imprint. A footprint. I was there, and part of me remains. The rest of me yearns to be made whole again.
Before I left Korea, I had my students write goodbye letters to me. I came up with this exercise partly so I didn’t have to plan real lessons during my last week, and partly because I wanted some reminder of my students’ personalities. I collected the letters, took them home, put them with my other Korean souvenirs, packed them into one of my five bags, flew them across the ocean, and unpacked them onto an empty shelf in my room. The letters are still there, unread. I’m too afraid of what I’ll find when I read them; of what I’ll find missing in myself; of what I’ll want to get back. I’ll know where it is, but I won’t be able to get it. This feeling was what brought me back to Korea the second time, and there can’t be a third – not yet, anyway.
So what do I do with all this? What do I do with my memories and my sadness? How can I turn the pain of nostalgia into the pleasure of a future fused with my Korean past? I tell people, and I tell myself, that I’ll be going back to Korea for the rest of my life; that I have such a strong connection to that place that it will forever be a part of my future. But I’m still trying to figure out how to make that happen. So far, not so good. There are more pressing matters to figure out: my career, where I’m going to live, what I’m going to make for dinner tonight. Ahead of me, I can only see years of figuring out, and the establishing that will happen thereafter. And I don’t see that happening in Korea.
I guess I didn’t see Korea happening either, though, even three months before I went for the first time. I was just a kid, burnt out from school, looking to travel, somehow and somewhere. What I found would carve out permanence in an otherwise inconstant person. That’s what life is, I guess: stumbling upon what is permanent and what is not; what you love and what you do not; who you are and who you are not. Nothing in life is static, least of all, you. People are always changing, finding, learning. And therein lies what little solace I have: that my search is not over. There is still education and transformation to be had. There is another Korea out there for me, I just don’t know what it is yet.
So here I sit, on the bare floor of a tiny home-office-sized room in Brooklyn. Bags barely unpacked, skin bristling with New York summer sweat, arms and legs tired from hauling my life in luggage across the city. I find myself lost for what to do. Today is the first day of a new experiment. Call it An Old Seoul in New York. For two months I am subletting my sister’s apartment, hoping to find a job that lets me turn this sublet into something rented, and that job into something desired, and that something desired into some kind of career. A tall order, and a scary one at that. This city is huge. Seoul huge. Staggeringly bigger than Charlottesville. I’m hoping that somewhere in all this chaos and uncertainty I will find my next little slice of permanence. I guess I should be excited. I am excited. And yet, there is a lingering sadness. Not the pain of something lost, but of something left. My one and only…