Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Difficult goodbyes.

A year ago at this time I was still at EPIK orientation.  The entire time at orientation we all couldn't help mildly freak out as we were filled with anxious curiosity about our placements.  As different as the myriads of EPIK teachers are, we are all cut from the same cloth to some extent. We all lack a certain amount of sanity because we all ditch our lives in our home countries and move to Korea without knowing where in Korea we will be living or even what grade we will be teaching. All of this information is a surprise they leave until the last day of orientation, which looking back on it seems even crazier to me now than it did even then.

I will never, ever forget the day we found out our placements.  They separated us into classrooms according to the buses we would be taking the next day to meet our co-teachers.  On the door to our classroom was a list with our names and our placements.  Naturally it was written in Korean, and being a Korea-newbie I had no idea what it meant, so I asked another member of our class who was Korean-American to tell me.  He told me I was placed in a town called Mungyeong.  I instantly freaked out because I had never heard of it, and while many other people were headed to the same cities, I couldn't find anyone else going along with me.

Even after I met my new co-teacher, it was some time before I actually met any other foreigners here.  I was almost convinced that I was going to be in for a long, solitary year in Korea.  Luckily, one Friday night the foreigners found me, and suddenly I knew I wasn't going to be in this alone.  What I didn't know was just how much I would come to love the people in this town.

There's a certain bond you form when you live with other people. I remember when I started college I was amazed at how close I felt to my friends.  We bonded quickly and deeply because we weren't just going to class together, we were living together and sharing every single crazy high and low together.

When you live in an expat community it's a similar situation.  You're not just hanging out all of the time, but you spend our holidays and birthdays together, being each other's families when those who share an actual bloodline with you are on the other side of the world.  You share the random, crazy, and sometimes incredibly frustrating experiences of living in a country that only other people who have lived here can understand.  Although I can share the stories about being in Korea, no one will ever understand like the people who have been here with me, experiencing the same thing. You share the happiest, saddest, crankiest, drunkest, funniest, and most vulnerable moments with these people because it's just what you do as an expat--you share it all, for better or for worse.

I was recently talking with a friend at home about our expat community.  I mentioned how much I have learned from living and becoming friends with these people because often times the people who I love here aren't people I would typically choose as my friends back home.  When you're home and surrounded by tons of people who you can communicate with, you can get a little picky about who you let into your friend pool.  It's different in Korea. It doesn't sound eloquent, but it's true: we don't have have many options, at least in small towns like ours.  This has turned out to be the greatest gift though, because it's forced me to look far beyond differences and come to love the "types" of people I never thought I would find myself close with. We have so many distinct personalities in our town, that I've sometimes joked that we could be a cast on a sitcom because we are all different "types" of people. However, these differences are what has made this community even more like a family and a truly exceptional place to live.

It's for this reason that it's been so difficult for me to say goodbye this week.  Some of the people leaving are the people who helped me make sense of my life in Korea.  They were the ones who took me under their wings when I was the newbie in town who didn't even know where Homeplus was.  They're the people I've traveled with and shared every step of this experience with. This place is going to feel so incredibly empty and lonely without these people. Every corner of this town will remind me of their absence for quite some time.

It's been a long week of farewells including an overnight trip to a pension Friday night, followed by a huge dinner, drinking,and the absolute best noraebang session I've ever been to on Saturday. Monday and Tuesday were filled with more goodbye gatherings as the last moments with these people approached. I don't think I've slept more than 4 hours each night this week, partly because of staying up late, and partly because the craziness has just meant that I haven't been able to sleep soundly because there's been so much on my mind.

I'll never forget the night I met the other Jeomchoners.  After the foreigners knocked on my door and found me, we went to a farewell party for a girl who had  lived here for a few years.  And yes, a farewell party is an incredibly awkward time to walk into a room as a new, excited-about-everything person.  However, while I was surrounded by a room of people who were strangers to me, I remember watching everyone in their sadness and thinking "this will be me a year from now."

I had a real full-circle moment last night as we gathered to say goodbye to probably my absolute best friend in Korea.  We were at the same bar we were at a year ago when I met everyone at the farewell party, when the one new person in our town arrived.  How strange it was to be on the other side of things, just where I always knew I was going to be.

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