As the first year comes to a close, beyond all the silly, self-involved ~reflecting~ I do on life and my brain or whatever, the biggest change to deal with is the people. My orientation group back in the halcyon days of August, 2010 was something around 90 people, a teeming horde of Canadians, Americans, English, and South Africans (with a few straggling Irish or Aussies). For a year I grew to know them, and grew to care for them (or hate them, as the case may be), and casually, blithely ignored the ticking clock above our heads detailing the end point of our convenient contact. As highfalutin and zen as I pretend to be about friendship and growing up, it’s undeniably gutting to see so many people going away while I will be staying behind.
I remember those first few weeks of living in my neighbourhood, gently toeing the waters of Korean life for fear of the ice-cold plunge, and clinging to those few friends I’d accrued within walking distance. Pierre was my hotel roommate at the orientation: crammed into a tight space with one another for the first week of our life in Korea forged a bond mostly out of necessity. Luck happened to place our apartments but a few blocks from each other.
Our first night out in Korea with Thanh was a dizzying struggle. We wandered the streets of Yeonsu, pointing vaguely into well-lit, open window restaurants, commenting on this or that bright cartoon animal on the signage. This was how Thanh and I usually picked restaurants in Toronto, but here it was also a way of delaying our inevitable first foray into an actual Korean restaurant. We finally landed in a samgyeopsal place and, after fumbling with our phrase books and dictionaries and our sweaty, chapped souls, managed to order food and beer. We were like newborn ponies, slick with horse vernix, taking our shaky first steps into a strange, unkind world, and knowing that we needed to learn how to run.
In that way, Pierre and I grew up together in Korea. Sure, we were nominally already adults and accredited teachers, but being able to be an adult in a land where you don’t speak the language is a wholly different matter.
I remember long discussions with Brigitte about music. Which albums we were hooked on, what styles we enjoyed, what new single would be coming out soon. We were both starved from the dearth of live English music in Korea, and the relative omnipresence of blasting, frothy K-pop. When we heard about a rock festival in nearby Daejeon (with accompanying beer tents), we pretty much instantly hopped on a bus and got moving without really knowing any more details. We didn’t need to. There was music to be had.
I remember photo days with Nancy. We both got our cameras at the same time, having jealously watched the other hobbyist photographers in Korea with delirious envy. With these behemoths in tow, we struck out into Korea with our DSLRs set aloft, in search of everything vaguely scenic to fire through our lenses. We spent hours walking through a Korean graveyard during Chusseok, and wandered around the weird public art field on Nami Island. We ate absurdly good burgers in an art gallery restaurant in Samcheong after strolling the alleys and photographing the old houses. We explored parks, and side-streets, and cafes and anything else that looked vaguely colourful and struck us, in our enthused, novice noggins as something that might look nice in picture form.
I remember studying sessions with Gwen, as she tried to find good Korean tutors and eventually got sick of them because they went too fast, or two slow, and how I was the closest thing approaching a good Korean teacher (ha!). Our friendship grew largely out of a facebook message: she said she wanted to go to Thailand during a specific time, and no one else seemed to be biting. I had the same problem. And so, suddenly, off we went.
Korean class is where I became connected with some of my closest friends through Korea. Our teacher later told us her strategy: she hated teaching large groups, and so for the first few classes, she went insanely fast and made it nigh-impossible to keep up with the pace. Some of the only surviving Korean students after the initial onslaught were Tony, Adam, and Leona.
I remember our furtive, stiff-upper-lip declarations of war against Miseon, before we knew her all that well, and how staunchly we were devoted to not dropping the class. Later, I remember dinners, and flashcards, and practice sessions, and braving the cold over and over again to meet for class.
I remember the trivia team, and how the line-up eventually came to include Tony, Pierre, Adam, and me. Our long discussions of team names, and our careful whittling down of the selection. Long nights hunched over a bar table, snapping the pen from one another’s hands when we wanted to make clear who it was that would contribute the correct answer. The wins, the losses, and the deep umbrage and simultaneous power-inebriation we felt whenever we ran the class.
Months working on an animation with Tony and Adam, cutting paper puppets out on an officetel floor. Countless excursions into norae bangs, into new restaurants and new bars. Travelling from one end of Korea to the next with each of these people, and beyond Korea. Having people I’d met barely months before feel like friends I’d carried with me for years.
It’s a melancholy time. A lot of the things that made me happy in my first year, a lot of the things that compelled me to stay, were the people I met and the experiences I shared with them. That they are gone makes the decision to remain in Korea all the more difficult and bittersweet: I got back just in time to feel really sad for about a month.
But this is the nature of the expat community in Korea. People come, and they go, and people connect and separate. It’s amazing, and then it’s sad, and then you have to figure out how to remain friends across continents or decide whether a year was enough. And eventually, it’ll be my time to walk away, and have people give me gifts and tell me how much they’ll miss me, or how they’ll come visit me someday. To feel sad, and to wish we had more time together. But not yet.