More and more lately I find myself thinking about my life in Korea. Bits of it come back at the most random moments, and I get a pang of…not quite homesickness, but close to it. I miss life in Korea in many ways. I’m glad to be back, but there will always be that part of me that loved living in a foreign country and making my home there.
This is the view up the street where I lived. The bakery on the corner, Paris Baguette, was a place I often went after school to grab dinner, and I got to know the owners a little, since their English wasn’t good and my Korean was terrible. But they were very kind to the foreigner who didn’t understand about the tray and the tongs the first time she went in (grab a tray and tongs and then put the things you want on them).
This is near the bakery, down the other way to the Tancheon river. Apparently, you can bike all the way to Seoul on the paths, but I just walked, mostly, probably a dozen or so times the two years I was there. It was usually busy, crowded with walkers and families, or the air was full of clouds of gnats, but the rushing water was always soothing, and once I saw the most unusual black water bird hunched in the middle of the river.
I have a lot of memories of Jukjeon cafe street. I celebrated the first birthday after coming to Korea with a couple of coworkers there. We had sandwiches and awkward silence. But later, I would go to that street often and walk about the old European style streets, looking at the restaurants and checking out the handmade jewelry at the tables. It was most beautiful near Halloween, when decorations would go up and the lights would wind around trees. And let’s not forget the date I had there, where, at the end of the night, I was informed that my date “had nothing else to say” and thus closed the evening.
The walk to school – one I took close to a thousand times – was always a good part of my day. It was twelve minutes long, and unless there was snow to slip on, was a peaceful early morning kind of meditation. This house above, and its near twin next door, fascinated me every time I walked by. Small brick houses, so tiny, with gardens and plants everywhere. Hollyhocks, roses, trailing vines, bleeding hearts, and all other manner of plant life spilled over the fences and were glimpsed between the slats. I watched the growth of the squash on the corner with interest, seeing every day how it had changed. Though we lived in the city (see the skyscraper apartment buildings in the background), there were these pockets of garden and nature that kept me happy.
This is an earlier portion of my walk to work. Down the street and to the left is the road that leads past those houses, but before that, I would pass under the cherry trees, which, in spring, would dust the road with pink sprinkles and create whirls of magic as cars rushed by. It was breathtaking for a first-timer, and magical every year after.
This was taken at the mall in Jamsil. They had several of these flying unicorn statues, for what reason, I’ve no idea, but it was a fun and unique part of the huge complex. Jamsil was where I did nearly all my clothes shopping, as it had Zara and H&M and I could find clothes to fit my American body. It was also where I spent a lot of time with my two best friends in Korea, hanging out in the coffee shop run by a car designer (or something) with cars on display, or at the Kakao friends store giggling over Apeach cushions, eating huge meals at On the Border, or just wandering around and talking. I was never one for hanging out at malls until I moved to Korea.
And then there was this. This place, and this group of people, and this new hobby, Dungeons and Dragons. I started watching Critical Role while I lived in Korea, and after several months was aching to play, so I posted a question on the local foreigners facebook page, just on a long shot, and lo and behold, there was a group. The rest is history. I got hooked, and had the best time with some of the best people, and had the best food at Lagniappe, a cajun/mexican eatery run by a woman from New Orleans. Seriously, the best food.
And of course, Jeju. The first vacation I took with friends. A week of bliss, riding in a rental car, singing along to Cake by the Ocean five times a day, eating black pork twice in a week because it was so good, cringing through the chocolate museum that reminded me of my grandmother’s closet floor, and laughing with each other in our fabulous suite rooms. Not to mention the oranges, the black beaches, the gardens, the hiking, the rafting, and the multitude of cherry blossoms.
Then there was my life at home in my tiny apartment. I spent most of my time on my laptop, writing, watching TV, or using it to put a bit of nature in the background while I read. I started bullet journaling while in Korea too, hoping to insert a bit of meaning through organization. That bedspread was one of my favorite purchases. Cream colored with dusty purple accents, it was calming and warm and meant home to me. If I could have brought it back to America, I would have.
I still remember the feeling of waking up, looking at the wall next to my bed, at the lightly raised pattern on the wallpaper. I would roll over and sit up, feeling the quilted floral rug next to my bed, over the warped faux-wood flooring that covered the ondol heating. I would meditate like that, sitting in bed with my feet on the rug, anchoring myself to reality, before getting up and walking ten paces to start my coffee maker, a small red two-cup maker, while listening to my friend down the hall grind her coffee. I would sit at my desk and put my makeup on using the small standing mirror, since my bathroom mirror had permanent water stains all over it and no surface to hold my makeup.
I would drink a cup of coffee while putting on makeup, do my hair quickly, since it did so well in Korea, and then pour the rest of my coffee into a thermos to take with me. After the cafe went in at the school, breakfast was there. I would buy two chicken sandwiches, specially made by the dear lady who worked there, previously our office coordinator, and save one for lunch. I would eat the first after Quiet Time at 8:50, while the kids had their snack, and drink my coffee or tea and prepare myself for the day. Strange how those habits still remain so clear.
Yes, writing all this makes me miss Korea terribly. Even the problems. But the problems were very real, and I know my hindsight is rose-colored, and I needed to move on, move out, or make some kind of change. Maybe I could go back one day to teach in a different school. Maybe I could live there for several months on a sabbatical. I don’t know. All I know is that even memories of walking through the grocery aisles while listening to my brother tell me his latest D&D story brings a pang of longing very deep. I can remember so clearly buying tuna and milk tea and those excellent caesar salads and laughing at the antics of his group, thinking one day I might join them (I did).
Korea will remain a bright memory for me. No matter how it ended, no matter what happened there, it was an amazing time in my life, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
3 thoughts on “Remembering Korea: 1 Year Later”
It’s funny how memory works. I have to remind myself of the negative sides of Cambodia while the positives are within easy reach. I suppose that is the nice side of “memory from a distance”. But since I’m gearing up for another big change (just posted!), I can’t help but think what will I fondly remember about a place that I’m currently struggling with. Things are okay, and fine at the moment, but there has been enough to prompt our move.
And then we go about our daily lives knowing this moment is fleeting, and trying to hold on to it, that’s kind of strange, too. Memory is a necessary madness. And while it is nice to reminisce, I’m glad you’ve moved on and are in a better place! xo
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Me too, and it’s also necessary to remind myself why I left, when things get tough here and I dream of going back.
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Yes, me too, because I’ve been missing my Khmer colleagues and students.