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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.

 
Selfie before my first day on the job... which is hilarious when compared to what I looked like on my last day. What's more hilarious is the hairbrush in the corner, something I no longer really have a use for.  Pictured here: Overachiever, hair done/make-up on after three hours of sleep, dress-pants to impress first day of work Kirst... which differs quite drastically from leggings, oversized flannel wearing last day of work Kirst... a look that was completed by a baseball cap to cover my unbrushed hair.

Selfie before my first day on the job... which is hilarious when compared to what I looked like on my last day. What's more hilarious is the hairbrush in the corner, something I no longer really have a use for.

Pictured here: Overachiever, hair done/make-up on after three hours of sleep, dress-pants to impress first day of work Kirst... which differs quite drastically from leggings, oversized flannel wearing last day of work Kirst... a look that was completed by a baseball cap to cover my unbrushed hair.

 

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.

 
This was the first day that I ventured out on my own in Seoul - I went to an art museum, a hole in the wall book store, and sat down with a beer to read a book by myself. That first solo adventure day was a game-changer.

This was the first day that I ventured out on my own in Seoul - I went to an art museum, a hole in the wall book store, and sat down with a beer to read a book by myself. That first solo adventure day was a game-changer.

 

 

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.

 
You see that airplane of a child cheesing as he jumps in to the photo at the last second? That's Brian... The same Brian who I couldn't get to pick up a crayon or say a word when the school year began.

You see that airplane of a child cheesing as he jumps in to the photo at the last second? That's Brian... The same Brian who I couldn't get to pick up a crayon or say a word when the school year began.

 

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).

 
Almeezie looking fab, per usual... before getting her margarita to-go. Only in Korea...

Almeezie looking fab, per usual... before getting her margarita to-go. Only in Korea...

 

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.

 
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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…

True Life: My BFF is a Kindergartener

The Story of Tomato

 

Tomato/tomatoe: (n.)

The confusing fruit/vegetable.

Pronounced quite differently by my British mother and American father.

Frequently served in salads, and, in Korea, alongside grapes and apples in fruit cups.

Also the nick-name of my favorite kindergartener (and Korean bff).

Teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites… and I know that. I love all of my kindergarten students, and find each of them to be adorable, and amazing, and annoying in their own special way… but there was always something particularly unique about Sabina, (otherwise known as Tomato). She’s the cutest, spunkiest kid I have ever met, we have the same birthday, and, for these reasons and more, she became my unexpected favorite, and a big part of the reason I extended my contract.

So you’re probably wandering why the hell I call her Tomato. Long story short, first thing every day, my kindergarten class and I go through our morning routine. They meditate, and then we do the days of the week, the weather, and their feelings. As you can imagine, with a class of 12, this process takes a while. After learning about storms, it took even longer, because, being the jokesters that they are, they made a habit of shouting out, “IT’S A BLIZZARD” and “TORNADO!” when asked what the weather was like outside. Sabina, practicing her rhyming words, would always shout “Tomato!” instead.

…But it didn’t stop there. When asked, “How do you feel today?” most kids would list a smorgasbord of feelings like happy, angry, sad, and exhausted…or, more frequently, all of the above – (Side note: basically they have no clue how they feel… ever; and to have a kid say, “I feel very angry” with a huge smile on their face is one of the most twisted and terrifying things I’ve ever seen). Sabina, on the other hand, kept it pretty simple. I still don’t quite know why, but, everyday she’d say, “I FEEL TOMATO,” and, thus, the nickname Tomato was born.

In September, I was told it was her last day ON her last day, and all of the waterproof mascara in the world couldn’t have prepared me for it. At Korean hagwons, teachers don’t typically communicate with parents directly, unless we’re sending home report card comments, but, that day, I wrote a letter to her parents telling them how proud I am, and that I would really like to stay in touch – (aka nanny or babysit for free).

The response I received was much better than a babysitting request. On that Friday, the day after she left, Sabina’s mom messaged me saying, “Miss Kirstie, you have changed our minds. I’m truly moved. At home, parents take care of kids. In school, kids totally rely on their teachers. Having a good teacher is lucky for Sabina and I. On Tuesday, say, “Hello Tomato,” to Sabina as always.” So she came back, and I was absolutely ecstatic… but, unfortunately, that was not the end of the Tomato Rollercoaster.

 
 

At the end of October, Tomato left our school for good, and, though I was absolutely crushed, I totally understood her parents’ reasoning. When kindergarten classes were over for the day, she always stayed for afterschool. It wasn’t until 4:25 that she’d get on the bus to head home with the first and second graders, and the rest of the afterschool kindy kids. Then, due to construction along the route, she had an extremely long bus ride home… way too long for a girl so young. By the time she got home, she was exhausted, stressed, and unhappy… and hearing THAT broke my heart much more than learning she’d be moving to a different school

I kept in touch with her parents (and, again, emphasized my free babysitting offer). Just before Christmas I sent them a picture drawn by a girl in Beethoven class. It was a class portrait… and Sabina was in it. It made me smile, and broke my heart. Those kids either still don’t realize she’s gone, OR realize that she’ll always be a part of our class no matter what. Sabina’s mom was also touched, and responded with several recent holiday photos of Tomato. We arranged to meet after I got back from Australia, and planned a dinner for early January.

 
 

I hadn’t seen Tomato since she left Beethoven class in October, and was genuinely nervous about the dinner. I was right to worry because, at first, as expected, she acted totally shy and was not at all herself. On top of that, I thought I was just going to have dinner with Tomato and her mom, but, as it turned out, I was meeting the whole family: Tomato, mom, dad, and her older sister!

If I told you it wasn’t veryyyy awkward at first, I’d be a huge liar. I’ve only met her parents a handful of times… and it’s always been on the same days I’ve met every other student’s parent – (Thank goodness Tomato was easy to pick out of the crowd). Her parents ordered us beers, which threw me off. I thought to myself, “Is this a test? Do they want to see if I’ll drink in front of their daughters?” Then I remembered I’m in Korea, stopped overthinking, and took a big, delicious sip. Drinking is a huge part of the culture in Korea, and if you refuse a drink offered to you by a superior, it’s seen as extremely rude.

Tomato’s dad did most of the talking in the beginning. His English is much better than her Mom’s, and, I discovered that, though I thought I had been messaging her mom all along, most of the time, it was actually her dad. Tomato quickly warmed up to me as the dinner went on. At one point, she was poking a tomato around on her plate, and so I said, “Hey… tomato… look! You’re about to eat a tomato,” and she laughed hysterically. From then on it was game over, and she was 100% the silly, funny student I love and miss.

It was SO nice to hang out with her in a setting where I didn’t have to tell her to be quiet, or to sit nicely, or to focus. We just laughed, ate, played, and had fun. She taught me games she’d learned from friends at her new school, and got super territorial when her mom or sister tried to jump in.

 
 

When we were finished with dinner, her mom suggested we go get coffee and ice-cream. I’m not sure what it is with Koreans and getting coffee past 9 p.m., but I wasn’t quite ready for the evening to end, so I agreed. As we left the restaurant, Tomato clutched my hand and wouldn’t let go. She practically dragged me down the street toward the coffee shop, and continuously looked back over her shoulder at me, as if she was checking to make sure I was still there.

At the coffee shop she opened up my late Christmas present, and I think it’s safe to say she liked it. I brought her a koala T-shirt back from Australia, and other little odds and ends like hair clips, pencils, and stickers. She pulled the T-shirt on over her dress, snapped the Minions hair clip on one of her pigtails, and admired her sparkly new stickers. (If I’d known her sister was coming too, I’d have brought extra, but, being the sweet angel she is, Tomato opened up a pack of stickers and immediately shared a sheet with her older sister).

All in all, the evening was perfect. My stomach and heart have never been more full. I was so happy to see Tomato, and even happier her parents wanted to set up another day to meet before I leave – (We’re going to see Moana this weekend, and, I’ll tell ya what, I am pumped!) They said that if I come back to Korea, they want me to be her tutor, and a part of me almost considered ditching my plans to return home altogether. When I got home that evening, her mom sent me a text saying how sad Tomato was to see me leave after dessert. We arranged the movie date, and then her last text said, “I was so happy to meet today! Sleep tight!” I feel so welcome by that woman, it’s almost like having another mom in Korea.

Not long after my reunion with Tomato, I came across this quote by Miriam Adeney.

 
You will never be completely at home again because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.
 

This could not possibly describe my current feelings more accurately. Though I’m looking forward to my trip, and I’m excited to return home to my family, I absolutely dread leaving my students. Korea has brought me a lot of experiences that I am thankful for. Of all of them, nothing comes close to the blessing of knowing and loving Tomato and the rest of Beethoven class. 

It’s cliché, but true - these kids have made me want to be a better person. their unconditional love and joy are things I will remember, and cherish, for the rest of my life.

 
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