Korea -- Knowing when to leave
A foreigner lands at home
People always say that time flies and flees faster the longer you’re around. A year has passed since I boarded an Asiana flight out of Incheon with most of my life in two duffle bags and a backpack. The rest of it was in boxes on a ship headed across the Pacific. I landed as a foreigner in the country of my birth, much like the line from G. K. Chesterton’s “Tremendous Trifles”: “The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”
An old friend used to say that he equated his time in Korea to “The Odyssey”; he was going to both friend and fight the gods like Odysseus did until his years were up and he returned home to New York City, just a few hours south of another Ithaca (though without the same drama). He stayed the 10 years, but departed Seoul not for his homeland but for Cambodia, where the gods continue to vie for his soul on the Hadean streets of Phnom Penh. My ship arrived more on target, but with the same feeling that Odysseus might’ve had on his trip to the Land of the Lotus Eaters, except that I couldn’t send any scouts ahead.
My landing was softened by spring’s salubrity. I was first greeted by the climate and geography that are specific to New England: chilly nights giving way to frost-laden mornings that rise among the stone walls and old colonials, shaking off the cold and welcoming the warmth of ever longer days. At first, the silence and unadulterated darkness woke me at night as I listened for something: the slam of a car door, the yap of a neighbor’s dog, the general hum of the city, anything. It was as if my mind sought those things for assurance, like it remained back in my Seoul apartment and wondered what my body was doing in a bed that was eight miles down a dead-end road in an 1825 New Hampshire Cape-style home. This took weeks to pass, but I sometimes still wake and can easily place myself in that apartment overlooking the entire city of Seoul from the side of Mt. Acha in the far eastern Gwangjin district.
That phenomenon seemed to encapsulate my readjustment; I had physically left Korea, but many parts of me — mentally, professionally, spiritually and beyond — remained there. I imagine that this is why many people advise shorter stints abroad, say two to three years. Those cultural rules you learn growing up, the common sense Einstein called, “the collection of prejudices acquired by age 18,” remain mostly intact, unaltered and firm. Stay five years or more and you change for better or worse. You acquire different prejudices that conflict with those you carried to Korea and sometimes you can’t explain them to yourself (why am I opening the window midwinter while I clean?). Then you leave. Or you stay the rest of your life. It’s scary how simple that is — after a certain point, staying forever becomes this choice that has a straightforward yes or no answer.
The gods had been kind
Eighteen months ago, I sat atop my apartment building on a crisp, clear October evening looking west over the city as the first neon lights signaled the arrival of nighttime and the city’s luminous transformation. What will happen out there tonight? I thought, imagining the millions of people circulating through the subway tunnels and stations, on buses, in taxis and cars, filling bbq restaurants, singing rooms, Gangnam clubs and hostess bars, sitting at school desks, in office towers, along the Han River, in PC bangs — everyone doing something, going somewhere, living his or her life; many out of one, one out of many. Looking to my right, north, I could see the high school where I taught, still filled with students who would work until after 10 p.m., and the ridges of Mounts Bukhan and Dobong further onward. Looking south, I followed the Han River’s serpentine edges through marching apartment complexes and skyscrapers. Mounts Daemo, Cheonggye and Gwanak wrapped the southern edges of the city in sweeping shadows.
Just then, an airliner descended through the distant setting sun, into Gimpo or maybe Incheon, and I thought of the people onboard, of myself onboard many years before, landing on a gelid January morning as an absolute foreigner, knowing one person on the peninsula, planning to stay a year, briefed by a Culture Shock Korea book and a Lonely Planet phrasebook that proved invaluable.
My first month acted as a crash course in all things Korean: using chopsticks, bowing, sitting on the floor, trying to buy and order anything, giving and receiving things with two hands, navigating the streets. I’d been lucky for sure. My director was a middle-aged woman (unusual in Korea), and my language academy was located in Gaepo-dong, Gangnam-gu, an affluent neighborhood in southern Seoul, set amongst mountains, forests and the Yangjae Stream. My apartment, though cramped by Western standards, was a pleasant 15-minute walk from work, five minutes from the bus stop where I could catch the 710 bus (now 143) that ran right across the city, south to north, and two minutes from the local market. Moreover, my students were a great mixture of prodigies and class clowns who taught me that kids are just kids no matter where you go.
The first part of my personal odyssey provided some stiff breezes and rough seas, but I never worried about housing, pay, meals, my health, the students’ parents — I sailed on unscathed, a lucky amateur at the helm. I say lucky because we’ve all heard the stories (and I’ve covered a few): the unpaid, the sick who have their insurance pulled, the sinister slave-driving director, the deplorable housing, the controlled bank account, et al. The gods had been kind, as that old friend used to say. The only real tempest was a serious ailment that forced my admittance to Severance Hospital where by chance my doctor ended up being one of the nation’s top surgeons, a gentle and genial man who, several years later, performed intestinal surgery on me (a Zeusian intervention, perhaps). But even that frightening experience further assured me that I could spend the rest of my life in Korea — having your own doctor as a friend does a great deal to settle the soul.
So the years passed. During that time, I advanced to one of the nation’s top prep schools, joined the staff of DDD, an eclectic cultural magazine out of Daejeon, made life-long Korean friends, traveled the land by train, ferry, foot and bus, paid into my pension and essentially assimilated and settled. The one-year plan disappeared with time and turned into two-, four- and five-year plans.
Like Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
The odyssey’s end?
Then one day a bold female student asked me what I was doing next. Next? Suddenly, all my years in Korea and before were at the front of my mind. I’d settled into a comfort zone, I thought. Yes, it was in Korea, but Korea no longer fit the definition of a foreign country. It was home. For me, this registered one day when, as my flight landed in Incheon from a visit to America, the feeling that I was “back home” popped into my head. On every subsequent trip in and out of the country, I felt like I was leaving and returning, not the opposite. Those unforced internal changes of consciousness epitomized my overall transformation. But, what next?
Leaving my fourth floor office that autumn evening during school dinnertime, I passed packs of students who waved at me, smiling and saying, “Goodbye, Rodgers!” “Goodnight, teacher!” “See you tomorrow, seonsaengneem!”; three years of students I had either taught or was teaching, marching along with time. I smiled and waved. As I neared the bottom of the school entrance by the large, red A-frame gate that I’d walked under countless times, I saw the girl who’d asked me the question earlier in the day. She was with a group of her girlfriends, giddy, shouting, twisting, bouncing, until, as usual, one of them spotted me and the word “Lo-jo-su” (my name in Hangeul) quickly spread while they all stared, shouted and waved. I’m sure I imagined it, but I swore the girl looked at me with that same quizzical expression, still thinking about the question and my inability to answer.
That feeling stayed with me as I strolled through the neighborhood; the students’ shouts and screams descending from the schoolyards above, the owner of the local bookstore wishing me well, the old lady at the corner store welcoming me with a smile. Walking up the hill to my apartment, a three-story brick building perched on the side of the mountain’s base, I kept thinking of the student’s question and the fact that I’d seen her just as I left the school gate. Was she reminding me of the odyssey’s end, that I had been ashore too long? With a cold can of OB Lager in hand I climbed the narrow stairs to the small rooftop garden with that cityscape sprawled out before me; my city, I thought, my home.
But for the rest of my life?
And that is when I decided that I could live in Korea forever. First, however, I’d have to extract myself, leave my comfort zone, think of that next thing the student reminded me of (that students often remind us of) and wrap up things while it was still possible. By leaving that glimmering city and landing back in America, I would now accept myself as a foreigner from abroad, changed from that kid who trusted the gods to deliver him some favorable seas on a journey to a faraway land and, hopefully, to help him sail back, be it two or 10 years later.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
After a long stint in Korea, John M. Rodgers is back in the United States and writes about readjustment. He is a founding editor of The Three Wise Monkeys webzine and currently acts as Groove Korea’s editor-at-large. — Ed.