Sunday, July 19, 2015

The beginning of the end

"You get a strange feeling when you're about to leave a you'll not only miss the people you love but you'll miss the person you are now at this time and place, because you'll never be this way again." -Azar Nafisi

My fast-approaching departure from Korea is something I've been attempting to write about for quite some time now, but I haven't quite been able to finish. In many ways, it just feels impossible to articulate the huge range of emotions I feel. There's such a bitter sting that I feel whenever I think about leaving Korea that it makes me want to ignore it and pretend it's not really coming.

However, as much as I want to pretend it isn't happening, it is, and Thursday was the first real wake-up call I had, as I had my last day at one of my elementary schools. While I had a huge variety of work situations this year, most of which made me crazy, my Thursday school was the light of my week. It took me over an hour on the bus to get there, but the commute was always worth it. This school was so far out in the countryside that I always felt like I was going back to an older Korea--a Korea before K-pop, plastic surgery, and the neon city lights took over. It was peaceful and calm, and I spent most of my commutes there listening to music and looking out the windows at the jagged mountains and green rice fields. There could be worse ways to start the day.
Some of the views from today's drive. Unfortunately the camera on my phone is crap. Everything looks way more impressive in person!

This country charm was part of why I loved this school, but the main reason was of course the students. Whenever I arrived at school the students always greeted me with enthusiastic hellos and high-fives. Whenever they were in class they were excited to learn and worked hard. When I left they always seemed to notice and yelled out "Goodbye teacher!" from where ever they were, even if it meant sticking their heads out their classroom windows. It's pretty hard not to love kids like that.

I adored these children, even if communicating with them was sometimes difficult. The hardest part of Thursday was not being able to really communicate to them how I felt. All I could do was tell them the day I was going to America and that a new teacher was going to come soon. There is so much more I wanted to say to them, but as is often the problem in Korea, I felt so limited by language.

In an attempt to remember as many of these students as possible, I took pictures with each class. Since I din't have a co-teacher, I had to use the timer on my camera, and the results clearly show that ten seconds is far too long for kids to stay still. After I finished taking pictures with sixth grade, they started giving me pieces of paper and asking me to sign it. I was at first confused and asked if they meant they wanted me to sign my name, and yep...that was what they wanted. So that's how I finished my last class at this school--by giving my autograph to a group of five sixth graders.

3rd grade. This boy grabbed my arms and wouldn't let them go. So cute.
The boys couldn't seem to get the hang of standing still.

4th grade. Only two students in this class!

5th grade. I love these boys! They made me laugh every single week. I will miss them terribly!

6th grade. 6th grade is typically a difficult grade o teach, but I adore these kids. They are so sweet and enthusiastic about learning. I will miss them terribly.

After my last class it was time for lunch, and on my way down one of the teachers stopped to talk to me about how it was my last day, which resulted in me trying to fight back tears throughout my whole meal.

It was a weird moment for me because I had such a vivid flashback to when I was still brand new to Korea. I remember feeling so overwhelmed when I first started to teach at the high school, and one day in particular I couldn't figure out what my co-teacher expected of me. I felt so overwhelmed and so far from home, that I remember trying my very hardest not to burst into tears in the lunch room. On Thursday I couldn't help but think of how much has changed between these two occasions. I somehow became so comfortable here--so much so, that now I can barely stand the thought of leaving.

After lunch the principal said he wanted me to go see him because he had a present for me. He gave me a handmade ceramic cup, which I unfortunately could barely even say thank you for because by this point in the day I had pretty much lost my voice. I did my best to bow and smile and hoped that that alone could convey my gratitude.

The weird thing about thinking about leaving Korea is thinking of Korea as something that will be in the past, to think of this as a closed chapter in my life. It's especially difficult for me to think about leaving Korea and not being able to easily come back. After I graduated college I took a number of random trip out to that area just because I felt a certain nostalgia for that time in my life. Leaving Korea is completely different because I know that once I leave, I'm unlikely to come back for quite some time. On top of that, I'm not sure when I will see some of these friends again--many of them I will likely never see again since we live in so many different parts of the world.

I've said it before, but when you're living abroad your friends become everything. It's a different kind of friendship because your friends are not only just the people you drink with on weekends, they're your total support system, your family during the holidays, and the people you share incredible and sometimes strange experiences with. It's overwhelming to think about leaving all of that behind.

Don't get me wrong, I'm excited to see my friends and family back home, but that doesn't necessarily make it any easier to leave. I appreciate that everyone back home wants to ask how I feel about coming home and is curious about what I'll be doing next, but in complete honesty, it's not something I'm eager to talk about. Being asked how I feel or what I'm planning on doing next feels a bit like salt in the wound when I don't honestly know the answer myself. I can't completely describe how I feel about these past two years coming to an end, and as for what comes next, there's absolutely no way of knowing until once I'm back and able to apply for new jobs. My whole experience in Korea has been more than I ever could have imagined, and I can't put into words how much I will miss not only this place, but this period of my life in general.

This next month is going to be an emotionally exhausting one, but the adventures aren't quite over yet.


  1. Excellent explanation. I lived in Korea too, and I think about it sometimes. I read your post and it reminded me of my own time there, which I can't really talk to anyone in Canada about.

  2. I just finished a chapter of my life and leave for Korea in five days to begin another. I was lucky enough to get a position teaching and I've used your experiences to help me prepare. I'll do my best with the children so don't worry. I am wishing you safe travels and new adventures.

    1. Best of luck to you! I hope you enjoy Korea just as much as I have!