Monday, September 26, 2016

Korea: One Year Later

"No one realises how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow."- Lin Yutang

Last month marked one year since I left Korea. As you can imagine, this anniversary left me with plenty of mixed feelings. Naturally I felt a sense of sadness for the fact that this part of my life is slipping more and more into the past, but I also felt a sense of contentment with where this year of life has brought me.

When I count the memories from the last 365+ days, it feels like I've been back for much more than one year. At times my life in Korea feels surreal, like it was just a dream. At the same time, there's a part of me that feels like if I jumped on a plane and landed in Incheon, I could easily slip back into my life in Korea without skipping a beat.

Adjusting to life back in America had it's challenges, but admittedly I think I had it much easier than many other expats who return home, as I had a job waiting for me when I got back. There really was very little time to think about the changes I was going through, which is quite the opposite of what I had expected to happen until I was offered a job a week before I left Korea. 

When my plane landed in America I had one day to renew my driver's license and take care of other urgent matters, then the next day I was off to orientation for my job. I struggled through jetlag and the general disorientation of coming back to America in the midst of meetings and other professional development activities, while trying my hardest to make a good first impression. The following week the school year started, and as any teacher knows, once the school year starts there's hardly any time to catch your breath. 

Despite this whirlwind, I think the hardest part of initially coming home from Korea was that everyone was really excited to see me, and don't get me wrong, I was happy to see them too, but my emotions were much more complex and happiness was something that was a bit hard to radiate to those around me. Talking about Korea was at first nearly impossible for me to do without crying. I admittedly spontaneously broke into tears multiple times throughout my first two weeks back home--largely the result of emotional overload, jetlag, and the pressure of a new school year.  

I felt a pressure to be happy when I returned home, but in reality a large part of me felt nothing short of heartbroken to leave behind not only the town I called home for two years, but my expat family in Korea. Perhaps the most difficult part of leaving Korea was leaving behind the completely unique period of life--a time without any serious commitments, ample opportunities to travel, and enough free time to make plans with friends pretty much any night of the week. Not many people get the chance to have a few years to themselves-a few years to be the center of your own world, to save and spend money on whatever you want. When I came back to America, I knew I would never again have the amount of freedom that I had in Korea. Although I knew I couldn't grow anymore professionally in EPIK, it didn't make it any easier to leave it all behind.

With this mix of emotions, it felt perplexing be right back where I started: home, in my childhood bedroom. Physically I didn't look much different than I did before I left for Korea, but those were two enormous years and I was not the same person I was before Korea.

As I lay in bed, I thought of the person I was just two years before, when I was in the same room frantically packing my two suitcases, not even knowing which town I was going to be living in once I got to Korea. It was strange to be back in the same room and the same bed, but this time knowing intimately the landscapes, food, people, and customs on the other side of it all. Korea felt so much like home that it was hard to imagine a time when the thought of going there was terrifying to me.


Even though a part of me still longs for that kind of life I left behind in Korea, this year has been fulfilling and full of wonderful moments. I'm so lucky to have gotten a job at the same district I taught at before I went to Korea. I still cannot believe that things worked out so perfectly for me, and I am immensely thankful for it. I live in a great place with great friends, and after a very long year of texting daily and strategically planned Skype sessions,  I have a boyfriend who loves traveling (and Korea) as much as I do with me in NH. I got to see two of my best friends get married, and I finally got to indulge my wanderlust once again in traveling to Europe over the summer. 

The list of things I miss from Korea is endless and I think about it all the time: the amazing food (kimbap, dalkgalbi, jjimdak, samgyeopsal, please!), lots of free time at school, essentially no work outside of school, the ability to travel on weekends and on every vacation, and of course the people.

There's also quite a long list of things I don't miss, which is admittedly much easier to forget about than the things do I do miss. I sometimes have to remind myself of these things when I find that I'm glamorizing my former life. For example, I do not miss not being to advocate for myself at school and being constantly dependent on coworkers, the constant language barrier that made things as simple as going to the store or post office difficult, being stared at constantly, and being pushed out of line at the grocery store.

Every now and then (especially when things are feel especially stressful), James and I throw around the idea of returning to expat life. It's a common thing for people to turn back to expat life after returning home. There are a number of reasons why this happens, but I think mainly once you learn how much is out there in the world, it's harder to stay content in one place. The adventure of traveling is addicting, and it ultimately lures many back to expat life. Truthfully, I wouldn't be opposed to living abroad again if the situation were right, but James and I both agree that right now isn't the right time. I'm not sure if the right time or situation will ever come our way, but if the last few years have taught my anything, it's never say never. 

Meanwhile, one of the things that has been great about being back has been reconnecting with friends from Jeomchon outside of Korea. Luckily one of our friends from Jeomchon lives in VT, so when he was home from his current job in Abu Dhabi we got to visit with him for a while. We also got to meet another friend, who is currently teaching in Sweeden, when we took a trip to Europe over the summer.

Jeomchon reunion in VT!

Jeomchon reunion in Germany!

I know I said it frequently throughout this blog, but there's something incredibly unique about the friendships that are made while living abroad, and it's been nice to see how easy it is to catch up despite the time that has gone by. I am comforted by knowing that there will be many more reunions in the future-these relationships are not lost and that is something that makes post-life Korea life much more bearable.

When I got home a lot of people would ask me "How was Korea?" I think everyone who returns home from expat life has the same feeling about this question-it's impossible to answer. There's no way to answer the question that would convey the enormity of the experience. My two years in Korea were the best years of my life, and they profoundly changed the way I view myself and the world. So how was Korea? It was everything. It was exciting, draining, beautiful, frustrating, hilarious, enlightening, complicated, yet incredibly simple. I miss it every day.

I only have a few friends left in Jeomchon, and I'm guessing that over the next year my remaining expat friends will also move away. I know so much has changed in Jeomchon over this year, and it will continue to change as time goes on. In my memory though, I have such a vidid feeling of what it was like to share in that extraordinary period of life with such an incredible group of people. In my mind when I think of Jeomchon, I will always think of it the way it was when we were all there together, running around town and sharing the unique experience of being foreigners in small-town Korea. My sadness that those moments are over is far outweighed by my gratitude for the pure existence of those fleeting moments. How lucky I am to have experienced such an adventure with such a lovely group of people from around the world.


This is the last time I ever intend on writing in this blog (unless I somehow end up in Korea again, of course!) With that, I want to thank everyone who followed my journey. I don't think I ever could have made the decision to move abroad without the support of my friends and family, so for that I owe you so much. I know it isn't easy to maintain relationships with people living on the other side of the world, and I am so thankful that so many people put in the effort to maintain a relationship with me while I was away. Expat life at times makes you feel isolated and forgotten by those at home, so every kakao, skype session, or piece of mail was appreciated in more ways than you can know.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

"Once you have traveled the voyage never ends, but it is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey."-Pat Conroy