Friday, July 3, 2009

Awakenings, or, Live, Love, and Leave

I have entered my final days of this great Korean experiment. This is my last weekend in Cheongju, and that sobering fact is just beginning to settle in as I have intentionally kept my self busy enough so as not to think of it. Leaving is a funny thing, it’s something that tugs at those tender heartstrings that we try so hard not to pull. Sometimes when I think of it I shake my head and laugh, because it’s one of the only actions that we perform repeatedly in this life yet it remains one of the hardest to do. Therein lies the beauty and the difficulty of travel, the art of constantly coming and going, of living, loving and leaving.

I will be honest with you; I am a bit of a sentimentalist. I enjoy reminiscing and thinking and learning and really searching through the pages of my recent history. So I beg your forgiveness in advance as I indulge with relish in this weakness of mine.

When I first came to Korea a funny thing happened: I didn’t eat breakfast. Or, rather, I couldn’t eat breakfast. Although I was confident that I wanted to be in Korea, I suffered from a crippling anxiety that subtly manifested itself in its ability to paralyze my capacity for food eating before noon. Not that I really cared, honestly, I wasn’t too keen on the idea of eating rice and kimchi at 7:30am. I tell you this because if someone were to paint a picture of my first few months in Korea it would be something abstract, employing many different colors and drifting far outside the lines. I suppose my expectations were met. I had expected nothing but a massive change, and that is what I received. For the first month I endured, along with dozens of my Fulbright comrades, a 6-week orientation that ran a bit like a military boot camp, complete with a drill sergeant walking up and down the halls with a megaphone at 7am to wake us up. Needless to say this form of motivation did little to decrease my anxiety. I remember one day in an orientation seminar being asked to write down why we had come to Korea, what our motivation was. I paused. It was such a basic question, perhaps the most fundamental question there was, yet I struggled to put into writing exactly why I had ventured around the world and landed here. What I eventually wrote was something like this:

“I am not here to teach. I am here to experience, to learn, to grow, to understand beauty and to learn to live in uncertainty. Teaching is just the vehicle. The means to an end.”

The day after we wrote these statements I received what was to me a rude awakening. We were sitting in our orientation class again, and we were told that if we went home early, if we did not finish our grant period, that we would have to pay Fulbright back for our flights to and from Korea. I listened without really hearing, each word falling heavily into place like a prison door clanging shut. “You…will…pay…us…for…both…of…your…tickets.” I did the math, “ok, each ticket is around 1,300 dollars, times two, that equals 2,600 dollars…oh dear,” I concluded, “I don’t have that kind of money.” My mouth slid open, I stared dumbly at the pencil on my desk as if it held the answer to my dilemma, as if it would sprout legs, arms, and a mouth, jump up and show me a way out of this quandary. Please understand, I had every intention of staying for the duration of my grant, but its one thing to say that you will live somewhere for a year, and its another to be locked into it via the threat of financial ruin. I officially had no plan B. Ultimately it was good for me, I reacted by pushing myself a bit more and acknowledging that I couldn’t afford anything less than success in this venture.

Fast forward to last night. I was sitting on the floor around the dinner table, with my homestay mother (Mrs. Bang) and father (Mr. So) on the other side, pouring another glass of Hite (the only Korean beer that they drink) and talking about Mongolians. “Did you know that years ago the Mongolians went into China, then into Alaska, then down into Canada, the US, and Mexico, and ended up in South America, in Peru?” Mrs. Bang asked. “No,” I replied. “I had no idea.” “And,” she continued, with a pleased look on her face, “that is why today the people from Peru farm the same way we do here in Korea. And they perform the same ceremony before harvest that we do.” Right on cue, Mr. So jumped up from his cross-legged position, beer in hand, to demonstrate. Dipping his pinky finger into his glass, he started flicking beer out of the glass and onto the floor with incredible volume and speed. Mrs. Bang, who had not anticipated this demonstration, started slapping his legs, telling him to stop throwing beer on the floor, and that he would have to clean it up. After he had emptied about half the glass, he stopped with a big, pleased smile across his face.

Moments like that I’ve found are hard to replicate. They are endemic of the comfort I now feel living in Korea, a comfort that has taken a while to achieve, but I now feel deeply.

So in a week I will leave this. I will bid goodbye to all the places I ever visited, to all the coffee shops I ever indulged within, and to all the beautiful people and places I have met and seen. Just as I've awakened to the beauty of this experience, so will I leave this and awaken to another beauty, another adventure greater than this has been. I will move on to greater and better things, I really believe that, and I am excited to do so; but that fact doesn’t make leaving any easier.


Cathi Geisler said...

hey. can I ask what org you went to South Korea with?

Jon said...

I was in South Korea with a Fulbright Grant through the Department of State. The grant was to teach English about 20 hours a week and conduct research the other 20 with a local NGO.