It's hard to believe I finished my teaching contract in Korea one year ago today. During this past year, I would think back periodically to what I was doing one year ago, like, "Last summer I was teaching the drama class!" or "Last year at this time I was on a ferry to Jeju Island!" or "For Thanksgiving last year we had a huge foreigner potluck!" Back when I nearly died of happiness when my coworker gave me little baggies of hard-to-find spices like nutmeg, cloves, and allspice and almost cried at pumpkin pie, smoked salmon, and good cheese.
The end of February was crazy last year. I had just a week left at school after being on vacation in Australia for 3 weeks. I came back from southern hemisphere summer to Korea's blanket of snow. I remember getting to the airport in Seoul and finding it comfortingly familiar. It was my 3rd time flying in, and I didn't even have to check schedules or follow any signs to get to the bay where I could catch the bus to my city. It was just straight back to Gunsan for a week of wrapping up.
I cleaned out my desk, transferred lesson plans to the new teachers, and was the only lucky foreign teacher on the panel to help interview and select the new Korean teachers for the school. There were no classes, so while all the other teachers were just hanging out in the office, napping or reading or watching It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, I was sitting in a half-day interview conducted almost entirely in Korean. I really wanted to zone out or doodle or excuse myself or suggest doing the English portion separately, but with the Superintendent and the Head of the Board of Education there, I thought I'd better just buck up and deal with it.
I also had to say goodbye to the awesome friends I met in Gunsan. This meant a last open mic night at The ROK, and last dinners of grilled meat and delicious kimchi.
I've even managed to see a couple of my Korea friends since leaving- Cherie and I met in Spain last summer, and I've hung out with Phil in Bellingham and Seattle. And I have no doubt that I will see a small handful of other friends at some point, especially the Americans and Canadians.
I had a great year in Korea. That doesn't mean I loved every aspect of the culture, or that there weren't hard moments. I don't miss being stared at all the time, the overcrowding everywhere, being pushed and elbowed in public, being openly asked my age/marital status/salary, told bluntly that I've gained/lost a few few pounds, the drunk men shouting below my apartment window most nights, the last minute required staff meetings, the totally mediocre beer and lack of microbrews, the horrendous driving, the pollution, the lack of zoning and noise ordinances, the dangerous cycling conditions, the general obsession with physical appearance/perfection, or seeing young students completely overworked, stressed, and exhausted.
Korea is just not in my heart the way Mexico or Italy are. It's not somewhere I'm aching to go back to. But it did provide an awesome setting for a year of teaching, for a salary where I could live comfortably AND save money, for a chance to learn a non-Roman alphabet, to understand a little about Confucianism, to try new and delicious foods, to make life-long friends from around the world, to feel safe all the time, and to just get comfortable in my own skin of being in such a totally foreign place. I felt very taken-care of, and was constantly amazed by the kindness and generosity of many of my Korean friends and coworkers. And since I've been home, there are aspects of Korean culture that I miss and try to maintain, namely making and eating kimchi, and going to Korean spas.
That year made me realize that often experiences aren't so much about what you do, but how you do it. It almost wouldn't have mattered what country I was in, but simply that I was living there fully, with my whole heart open to all the newness. I wasn't questioning myself or second-guessing what I "should" be doing- I was just doing it. And that is precisely why it was so fulfilling. Now, to just keep that attitude here in Seattle!