The First and Last 48 - Saying Hello and Goodbye to Korea
Somehow, after 18 months of calling Seoul home, on March 2nd, the day finally came when it was time to say goodbye… (and then that day came again on March 3rd after missing my March 2nd flight).
When I decided to move to Korea to work, I genuinely had no clue what to expect. I saw it as an opportunity to travel, to break away from the norm, and to experience a new place for a while. When I embarked on the journey to Seoul, I (shamefully) didn’t know much about Korean culture, didn’t know a single soul there, and could barely pronounce “Annyeonghaseyoooo” – (hello). I thought I was cultured, and I thought I knew myself, but I had no idea.
It wasn’t long after I touched down in Seoul that I realized, up until that point, I’d never truly experienced culture shock. I had traveled abroad before for vacations, spring breaks, and to visit my mum’s family abroad, but this was the first time I’d ventured so far alone… and it was one hell of a first experience. On my very sleepy ride in to the city with the cabbie who spoke zero English, I wondered what the hell all of the buildings were that looked exactly the same. Keep in mind, I'm from a very small town called Pleasant Garden, North Carolina. Rows upon rows upon rows of high rise apartments were a foreign concept to me. So was the fact that my school was not a free standing building, but in the same building as a pharmacy, grocery store, doctors office, dentist office, and bank (among other things).
Though the highlight reel that is social media probably did a good job of making the last year and a half look like nothing but good times and smooth sailing, let me tell you, it has not been. For one, just being on my own and actually enjoying it was a massive adjustment. Learning to operate solo enabled me to do a lot, and to travel a lot, but, behind the scenes, it also meant working extremely hard to make it happen. (I’m talking 14-hour work days… which I had three times a week after picking up a second, possibly illegal, tutoring gig).
On top of the crazy work hours, regular life things were sometimes a pain. The simplest tasks, like going to the post office, or to the pharmacy were much more difficult given that, most of the time, I either had no clue where to go or was faced with a massive language barrier once I got there. Making it to the doctor was a horror story of its own. Picture me with a runny nose, horrid cough, and extreme chest pains, crying in a maternity ward to Koreans who couldn’t understand that I was looking for urgent care… or just any doctor who would see me and put me out of my misery. This was the worst of my hard times.
At the end of the day, despite these complications, Korea was completely life changing, and I’m so thankful for the time I had and the people I met there. Looking back, my first and last 48 hours in Seoul were spent in quite similar ways... with a very disoriented, running around like a chicken with my head cut off, and crying… a lot.
The first 48
When I moved to Seoul and got to my shitty little apartment with the nonexistent kitchen and smoke-stained wallpaper, I had been travelling for something like 36 straight hours: From Dublin to Dubai, then Dubai to Seoul. I wanted to check in with my family to let them know I’d arrived, but since the spotty wifi connection in the room sometimes worked and most times did not, I couldn’t even do that. So once my director left, I settled in to my rock hard mattress, and the waterworks began. I cried because I was scared, I cried because I didn’t know when I would see my family again, and I cried because, for the first time in my entire life, I was totally alone – and without a functional internet connection, I literally couldn’t contact anyone.
Bright and early the next morning, I went to work and met more people than any one, severely jet-lagged, person could possibly be expected to remember right off the bat. Normally lots of new teachers arrive at a school at the same time, but, aside from the guy who’d arrived a week prior, I was the sole newbie that day. I kind of didn’t know how to act. It was like the first day of school, and I was the new kid.
The girl who trained me was so over the job that she did little to make me feel included or clue me in as to what the heck was going on. I tried to be professional in a new work environment, to feel out the vibe among my new coworkers, and more than anything, I tried to not fall asleep.
Looking back, I was totally afraid to be myself coming in. Honestly, that’s probably because outside of my small town, comfortable environment, I really had no idea who the heck I was because I had always just been the person I was expected to be. At this point in the game, I was such a massive pushover that it was like I’d resumed my mousey, uni-freshman persona. It’s no wonder I became such an easy target for the office mean girl.
I had come in with the expectation that I would automatically have all of these work friends, and, in reality, was all but shunned by my coworkers. For a while, I totally felt sorry for myself. I typically get on well with everyone, so I was really surprised and put off when, after asking for suggestions of good places to eat in our neighborhood, the response I got was, "I don't know, just go somewhere." There aren't enough wide-eyed emojis to describe the shock I felt at how mean they could be to a newbie who clearly had NO clue what the hell she was doing.
Once I got over the initial shock that not everyone will always want to be friends with me, I quickly found my own way around, and started to become comfortable with doing things on my own. I sought out new opportunities and made friends with people who I got along with not out of necessity or proximity, but because we actually had things in common. I realize now, that what I thought was a misfortune was actually a blessing in disguise. Sooooo thank you, Deborah for being totally rude to me and leaving me out for no reason. You were the catalyst for the first of many lessons I learned in Seoul.
The last 48 (or week... whatever)
For my last few days in the country, the string of goodbyes was never ending. First I said goodbye to my kindy class, and, though I held my shit together pretty well on graduation day, when a mom came to me with arms open for a hug and tears in her eyes, it was game over. And of course it was THEN that all of the other moms decided it was a great time to begin taking photos. My Kim K cry face and I probably look fantastic in those shots.
A couple days later, I said goodbye to my ex-coworker and long-time FWB – (by long-time I mean on and off for the full time I was in Korea… give or take a few days... which is a long ass time for me to not grow entirely bored of someone). That was a surprisingly tough time too, as, naturally, he was oddly sweet and not the complete shithead I’d grown accustomed to. We went for drinks with his coworkers, and, at the end of the night, he randomly told me how he was going to really miss me. What is it with guys and their epically awful timing?
That Monday and Tuesday, I said several waves of goodbyes to my elementary students, coworkers, and one of my closest friends. I wasn’t quite as attached to the elementary kids, but true to form, still cried when no one was looking. With the exception of a few people, saying goodbye to my coworkers was more sweet than bitter, and my goodbye with Alma was so nonchalant that it didn’t seem real… probably because it wasn’t a goodbye – sorry, babe, but you’re gonna have to see me again when Alexa and I come crash your wedding).
On Wednesday, what was supposed to be my last full day in the country, I hung out with Tomato and her nanny all day. We went to TeamLab World, one of the coolest interactive exhibits in Seoul. It’s definitely made for children, but, naturally, Alexa, Alma and I had already been. When we went, I immediately thought how cool it would be to go there with Sabina, so I was stoked when her mom suggested it. Though I was surprised to see it was her nanny (who I’d never met before and who didn’t speak great English), we managed to communicate and had an awesome time.
That evening after dinner, we rode the train home together, and, as soon as they got off at their station, she messaged me saying that she hopes I come back and to let her know if I need help with anything. Sabina’s mom also messaged me that night saying that when I come back to Korea she wants me to stay with them. I thought these were the last goodbyes, but, of course, was wrong.
Thursday was when the “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” really began. I spent the day selling off more of my things, walking massive bags of stuff to the donation bin, and packing up boxes to take to the post office. I had two boxes to send home, and one filled with school supplies to mail to Cambodia. Now, at home, getting all of this stuff to the post office would have been a piece of cake. I simply would’ve loaded them in to my car, driven to the post office, and been set.
Obviously, I don’t have a car… so, one by one, I had to lug the boxes down the hall to the elevator, one by one, load them on the elevator, and then, one by one, to the curb by the apartment. Taxis don’t come down that particular road too often, but frequently drive through the intersection one block up, so I grabbed one of the boxes and walked to the corner.
A free taxi stopped, I set the box in the back seat and, with my head poked in the car, tried to explain that I needed him to drive back to my apartment up the street so I could get two more boxes before going to the post office (a word I had just learned how to say in Korean that day). My usual pointing/broken Konglish tactic was totally failing me… And that was when an angel with blue hair tapped me on the shoulder.
I nearly smashed my head on the door frame of the cab I was so shocked. I turned around, and, in perfect English, a small blue haired Korean girl asked me if I needed any help. I explained my situation, and she then translated to the cabbie. She even offered to come with me if I needed help carrying things, saying that she was done with the things she needed to do for the day. I declined, thanked her, and told her she had helped enough already… I don’t know who you are, blue haired girl, but I will truly be forever thankful that you were kind enough to stop and help me out.
The cabbie drove to a post office two stations away, even though there were several close by, and once I got there, there was a massive line. The line was made worse by an ajumma who was so up in arms over something mail related that they literally had to call the police. I had allotted myself JUST enough time to get to the post office, and to breeze in and out. Spending over an hour at the post office was not in the cards… and set the rest of my day off.
I walked home and resumed my chicken with its head cut off act, quickly scurrying around to get the rest of my things together. That evening, when I went to catch the airport bus, it was leaving as I was waiting to cross the street. The next bus came half an hour later… and didn’t even stopped. Soooooo, I missed my flight, and thought to myself, damn, great start to this backpacking adventure Kirst. Though I had to put out the money for another flight, and squatted in my supposed to be vacated apartment for the night, missing my flight gave me the opportunity to 1) take some things out of my way too heavy backpack, and 2) to go to Hana, my go-to sushi spot, just one more time.
I was so happy when I discovered Hana for the first time. They had cheap sushi rolls and delicious fried green tea ice-cream. Though the food was amazing, I always went back because of the great service. The ladies at Hana were so warm and welcoming, greeted me by name, and always knew exactly what I wanted to order (because I’m a predictable creature of habit, and their 5,000 won spicy salmon rolls were too good to pass up).
If you’ve kept reading up until this point, you know that my last couple of days in Seoul were super emotional… and my last meal at Hana was no exception. Though there was an hour til closing time, it must have been a slow night because the ladies were starting to clean up the restaurant. Despite their closing preparations, they, as always, welcomed me with warm smiles and motioned for me to come in. I took a seat at the bar and said, “This will be the last one.” They must have thought I was referring to the last order of the night… and it took them a while to realize that I meant I was leaving the country.
The head chef, and my stand-in Korean mother, looked shocked then then got teary eyed… and then, over my spicy salmon rolls, so did I. On my worst days in Seoul, I'd go to Hana and her smiling face and warm demeanor would instantly cheer me up... and the fried icecream definitely helped as well. Long story short, this was another goodbye that was harder than I imagined it'd be, but I’m so thankful that in the middle of a massive bustling city, I found a place that felt so much like home… a place where I cried over my last super with my sushi mom. If I had written this as soon as I left Korea, I would have called this the last goodbye, but, turns out, my travels have been filled with many more.
The truth is, whether they come after 1 hour or 1 decade, goodbyes are an inevitable part of life. It’s hard to say those two bittersweet words and go your separate ways, but, I’ve found it’s always much better to make connections with people, no matter how short lived they may be... Better than the alternative of closing yourself off for fear of “losing" someone in the end.
I never imagined that I would have just as many tears leaving Korea as I did when I arrived there… if not more. I met friends and sushi ladies who turned in to family, and could not possibly have loved my students more. I had become really comfortable in Korea, so much so that that’s exactly why I knew it was time to go (though I’m being tempted back daily by messages from friends and the parents of my old students). The whole point of this journey isn’t about being comfortable… if that were the case I’d likely never have left home.
Korea taught me a lot… but before I (most likely) return, there’s more that needs to be learned elsewhere. To the people who I met, the sights that wow’d me, the experiences that tested me and challenges that changed me, I am forever thankful. I still don’t have it all figured out, but I am a lot more cultured and open, more sure of myself and my goals, and much closer to the person that I want to be. Thank you, Korea… til’ next time…