A lot has happened--so much so that it's hard to say what has been the most defining moment of my time here. Of course I've had these flashes of vivid memories, the sentimental and over-dramatic kind that seem saturated in meaning. I guess--in the end--it's easiest to define them by the seasons...
When I'd first arrived in Korea, I met up with a girl who'd contacted me through the Busan Fall 2018 KakaoTalk Chatroom (yeah, that's a mouthful). It was our first time meeting both each other and the country, and when we'd finally made it to Incheon Airport's baggage claim, I remember the relief that flooded through me. She called my name, a grin spread wide across her face, waving and weaving her way through a sea of suitcases. Later, we battled our luggage onto the airport rail, the subway, the escalators, and steps. We fought with KakaoMaps, Google Maps, and our limited Korean to find our AirBnb for the week. We got off the train at Hongdae like the apps had told us, but ended up circling the station for nearly two hours.
Cue our perfect introduction to Korea--or at least Seoul expat life.
Strangers from all over helped us navigate, invited us out, gave us advice. We exchanged contact information with these helpful, friendly folks on the street; and I will never forget standing in bustling Hongdae, my suitcase wheel busted from the potholes, watching this girl from Europe speak rapid-fire Korean on the phone with our host. We all went out later the next day, swapping stories as to what brought us here, what'll keep us here, and where our goals will maybe take us afterwards.
When I run into these acquaintances now, I'm shocked at how "small town" I managed to make a city as large as Seoul feel. Especially when I remember I actually live in Busan. Just a few weeks ago I was visiting Seoul again with my friends from home--an exact year from my arrival. I recounted the story of how I lost one of my luggage wheels and gained new friends that evening. I recounted the nerves, the overwhelming sense of adventure, the meet-ups I planned afterward.
But the help--the help and help and questions answered.
It was good to spend a few minutes reminiscing. My friends got some insight as to what it all felt like in the beginning. We then broke for the days' tourist activities. Me, translating what I had to as we roamed palaces, Bukchon, Insadong, and Itaewon. Them, asking for photos and food and stationary shops. I found myself zigzagging between the crowds without thought as to my direction. I knew where I was going. And then? When we were eating at a family-owned restaurant? Well I'd overheard a tourist couple struggling to ask about whether or not a dish had meat inside. Quietly, I'd sipped at my own 순두부 until a worker caught eyes with me. She was clearly baffled, and, without realizing, I stood up.
"Can I help at all?"
Chuseok has come and gone, and, though I'd filled my time with a whole road-trip of adventures, I'm remembering last year's celebrations.
Last year, I'd opted out of going to Seoul, choosing instead to travel Geoje on my own and making friends with my AirBnb host. I'd learned so much about Chuseok, about family traditions. I'd hiked with someone pointing out the tombstones that were to be visited in just a few days, learned about Korean scarecrow folktales and felt, though it was 80 degrees, a chill of autumn.
This year, after exploring a bit of the Yeongnam Alps, I'd driven with three friends three hours southward, making the trek back to Geoje for some camping at Gujora Beach and visiting Oido Botanical Island the next day. We pitched camp by the full moon and made friends with the elderly couple in the camp-spot over when we needed help. It was dark, save for the moonlight and a lamppost on the stairs between the parking-lot and beach-front. The smell of smoke and fire carried with salt, and I'd swapped my hiking clothes for a pair of plaid pajama bottoms and a sweatshirt. Once settled, we feasted on convenience store pizza and chicken, worried we might be getting too loud for the other campers nearby.
Then, the grandfatherly-type from the camp-spot over suited up for night-diving, and then, the grandmotherly-type gathered their dog into her lap. She sat on the steps, looking out at the ink-dark ocean, waiting for her husband to return. Us, the foreigners in front of our little tent, talking about family histories over a few bottles of soju on Chuseok proper.
Earlier that morning, our guesthouse hosts in Miryang had prepared 비빔밥 (bibimbap) for us, homemade 고추장 (gochujang) and 송편 (songpyun) included. The little indents on the rice-cake from their nimble hands, paired with a rapid Korean that lilted in dialect...
I didn't grow up with these things, but by the end of the day--from bibimbap breakfasts to moonlit campsites, I felt like this was my Thanksgiving Day, too. Stomach happy with songpyun. Heart softened by grandmothers who take care of these youngsters out on their own. Moonlight and beach and wind and sand. Waiting for your partner to come back, come home. Friends talking about their mothers and fathers and cousins and family stories.
It's been a week of post-Chuseok recovery, and I can anticipate few breaks between now and winter. I'll battle through some midterm exams and finals with my students, hitting the slump of the school year as I miss Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas at home. While I'll feel that ache of another year missing out on apple orchards, I'm thrilled to know the nearby mountains have silver grass festivals, that there's pumpkin jeon to hold me over on the pumpkin pie. I've planned a Thanksgiving trek out to Gyeongju to stay in a traditional hanok and explore the city whose mountain-range I'd first hiked last November. Even this weekend I've got Andong's Mask Dance Festival to look forward to! Then in a few weeks? Well...last night my friends and I had gone to a PC Room for BTS ticketing. After thirty minutes refreshing an overrun website and making far too much noise that disrupted the League of Legends players next to us, we emerged victorious. BTS concert on Halloweekend.
Last fall had been a frustrating and incredible journey to build community and a frantic sense of needing to see it all. I was trying to build routine for myself, trying to adjust.
Yesterday, I stepped out of my second school on the mountain, and the autumn breeze blew just right. It was the right kind of chilly. The right kind of clouds. The right kind of sun. Suddenly, I'd been transported back to my own days as a middle school student, even though Busan and New York are so vastly different. Even though the mountain-top scenery was a whole world different from my Flushing streets, I breathed a familiar fall in the air.
Winter to Spring:
I have a vague idea of what winter and spring will bring, but I don't know how I'll feel. Nostalgia, reflection...maybe panic? Knowing me, probably all of it.
Last winter, felt defined by my brother's visit. It was my first Christmas away from home, and I threw myself into planning his trip. After he left, I joined a kickboxing gym, visited museums, and generally tried to do all the indoor, winter activities I enjoyed doing back home. Didn't quite make it ice-skating though.
And of course, I had also plagued myself with a back-and-forth deliberation as to whether I would renew my contract with EPIK.
This year, I have a friend visiting just before New Year's and have begun thinking about a possible solo-trip to some bucket-list destinations. I'm thinking of those same, settling-into-place type of activities--which museums I'll want to visit, scheduling my workouts and gym routines, stuffing my time with writing and art when I know I'll dread the cold, snowless winter in sleepy Busan.
I also know I'll fall again into my indecisive deliberation. Not about renewing with EPIK (that much I know I won't do), but about my "what next?" Decide where to go to graduate school, or whether or not to apply for a university position in Korea.
Spring is another story.
Last year it had been my first time seeing so many cherry blossoms everywhere; and this year it may be my last few months in Korea. Who knows? I'll figure that out in time.
Most of my plans haven't changed: Keep up with this blog, play with my artwork, travel as much as I can, find time to work on my novels--though I've made my peace with the iron-lock in publishing--apply to grad school.
But I've added a few goals, too. Something like try my hand at YouTube for a bit--or learn app design. Maybe look at educational media jobs here in Korea. Maybe apply to teach university, since I do have the credentials.
...but if I'm in Korea for a third year I'd like that year to be in Busan. No Seoul unless I'm going to school again. I also want to take the TOPIK exam. Hopefully break into Level 3. Level 4 if the Grace of God carries me through my next few months studying.
I've thought also, admittedly, of going back to my original plan: volunteering for a few months in Chios with refugee education, moving home--New York home, that is--to begin my next chapter in life at a university in the states. The cost of that isn't all too exciting, but the resources and benefits can't be ignored.
But yeah...the general ~*~career goals~*~ plan for Season 2?
As for ~*~personal fun goals~*~ plan?
Find quiet spaces and shock myself out of my comfort zones.
Form community, branch out, let myself fall further in love.
Be vulnerable, be humble, be determined, be awed.
Seek to say yes--learn when to say no.
Make time for the future you desperately want to build.
From guides to rants.