To understand modern Korea, you need to understand so much that I’d need to write an entire book. When I got here in 2010, this song was played over and over again. OVER… and … OVER. On loop. Every hour on the hour.
Koreans love it when other Koreans are successful. They feel they are great reasons to feel national pride. I wasn’t here for the World Cup, as a matter of fact, I had just missed it, but every foreigner talked about the passion Koreans felt for their team.
“We could be riding in a taxi on our way somewhere, but if there was a game on and Korea scored, the taxi driver would pull over just like everyone else to look at the big screens that where placed all over Seoul, to cheer for their team. Even if they lost, they celebrated their team.” My friend Nick had tons of stories like that, and I couldn’t quite believe it until I experienced it myself when Park Ji-Sung would score for Manchester United. The games were always at 3 or 4 a.m. and I would wake up, go to the bar across the street, and watch the game until it was 530 a.m. and I had only a few hours left before work.
We were all on the same boat.
Korea doesn’t sleep and it certainly doesn’t sleep when the chance of making themselves proud in front of the world, happens. For example, when this dude exploded:
There was a recent article in The New York Times that explained the culture behind the Korean bathhouses. I love Korean bathhouses. They are a world within a world. For 10,000W (roughly $10), you get a spa treatment that will leave you feeling high on life and ajumma power. ”Ajumma” means “aunt”, everything in Korea is family oriented so their way of speaking is regarding each other as family. I have never heard them refer to a foreigner with this sort of language, which is what I am about to explain, but it definitely helps you understand that for them, Korea the country comes first and then, Korean family comes right after. No room for anything else. Except perhaps, Korean food. Because Korean food for the most part, is awesome. The point is, ajummas are everywhere and they are matriarchs to the max. In the bathhouses, in the women’s section, they are in charge of the scrubs. These are no ordinary scrubs. These are mighty scrubs, with mighty ajumma power, that will crub every last bit of gunk off of you and your skin will be pink with aggression all over it, but with a little almond oil, you have skin babies would be jealous of.
I am not kidding. Ajummas at first, sound like they are talking down to you, some might, but mostly, it’s because age in Korea has a huge play in how people interact with you. They know best. They are doing it out of hierarchy and from the mentality that it is their responsibility to take care of you, whether you like it or not. If you are the youngest, you carry the brunt of a lot of things. If you are the oldest, well, back in 2010 they world would bend backwards for you. The more time I spend here, though, the more I see that this amazing tradition of letting older people sit first or go first in line, is disappearing quickly. Younger generations don’t really care. And that’s a case we see all over the world.
“Korea is still trying to figure out a way to share itself with the world while retaining its identity”, said the article. I don’t want you to think that I was in love with Korea from the beginning. Like many things worthy in life, it took a lot of patience from both sides, a lot of emotional bruising and a lot of maturity, to grow into a loving relationship with Korea. They are tough people. When I first got here, foreigners were still a rarity compared to now. It was a tough thing to adjust to overall: the abrasiveness, the unapologetic rudeness, the coldness. I have never been in a country that was so cold and distant in both weather and cultural terms. Korea is weary of foreigners, but in my case, it has also been incredibly generous and kind to me.
Korea, I love you. I may not have always liked you, and I definitely did not make it easy for you to like me. I am so sorry for all the times I did some shitty eye rolling or heavy sighing in frustration. From the bottom of my heart, I am so sorry. Like a child learning how to walk in a new land, I didn’t understand many things. And you, like anywhere else in the world, are not perfect. The thing is, we got to know each other intimately. Your people saw me in the hospital, in the work environment, etc. You left me to my own devices, but you also protected me when I needed to be protected. You gave me things that my own country, has not been able to give me. When one gets to know a country intimately, and my goodness Korea, you know how to keep yourself concealed from foreigners. There are parts of your culture that belong to you and Koreans alone, and that’s that. Of course every culture has a link to its people, but with you it feels different. With you there’s a lot of history of being trapped between the Chinese and Japanese conquerors, and yet you held your ground. Fiercely Korean, fiercely you. And even though you are divided into two, to you there is no “North Korea”, there is just Korea.
Yesterday, 3.1.2014 I went to the veterinarian that has taken care of my Korean treasure (Vimba) for the past two years. She was not there, but her lovely manager was. He gave me free food for her, and only charged me for the carrier. He asked me if I was happy about going, because that’s what we feel we should ask people when they say they are going home, and I couldn’t lie. ”I’m sad,” I said. For some reason, my eyes began to water. He asked me why, and I just said “because Korea has been incredibly kind to me.” And he understood. And he was grateful to hear a foreigner say that. It’s not an easy place to fall in love with, but once you do, you’re fiercely loyal to it.
I spent the entire day going around Seoul with a group of friends that for some reason, The Universe has blessed me with. I sometimes wonder what I have done right in this life, to be worthy of such good people. I had my nails done and a beauty session with one of my favorite people. When they found out I was leaving, they gave me coffee sticks to take on the plane with me in case I wanted some “nice coffee”. Gestures. This place is full of gestures. They told me how pretty I look when I smile, and how I look like Puss in Boots when I give them the sad look. You have to laugh at these comparisons because they are totally unique.
And they can totally make your day, too.
Here’s my confession to you, Korea:
After getting used to your quirks, life got really comfortable and really good here. There is beauty in being comfortable, but my heart knows it’s not time yet for me to be “comfortable”. There’s yearning inside of me. There’s things I have to do, and that is exactly why I chose to leave now, on a high note. The time came to say goodbye, and what a lovely time it has been until now. Tonight, I leave my third and last apartment here. I will be an emotional wreck. I will see some people for the last time, and I know how life is with surprises. I might see them all again. I might come back, but for some reason, something tells me this time, I am not to come back to Korea. This time, something else needs to happen.
It’s a new chapter´s turn, and as eager as I am to experience it and write it, I am also incredibly sad to put yours behind me. Monday will be an emotional ordeal. I will turn my ARC card as I cross customs, they will ask me if I am coming back, and I will have to answer, “no”. I will go to my gate and wait for my plane. I will probably update Facebook. I will cry a lot publicly, which is something I have grown to embrace.
You have made my vulnerability crack open, exposing its belly to the world. You knew I was tired of pretending being cold and distant, you knew I needed to learn to make amends with my sensitivity. You did it. You showed me that being vulnerable, is being strong. That there is no shame in emotions, and you have taught me that no matter how angry I can be, I can still find the love to say “I love you”.
I love you, Korea. Thank you.