My family and I are leaving South Korea for the United States in less than two weeks.
I moved here—alone—eight years ago, and when I first arrived, I despised absolutely every last thing about this place. Almost anyone would have at least disliked the smoggy cement buildings and the garbage that was everywhere, but my loathing of this country was far more profound. The different designs for road signs are, objectively, completely benign and even practical, but because they were different from what I was used to, they drove me out of my mind. I hated the camera-shutter cries of the magpies, was sickened by heels on the beach, and found myself spending far too much time staring at the planes taking off from the airport.
I had a free apartment, which would be a luxury in any corner of the globe, and although it was clean, new, equipped with everything you could need (except for a stove, dryer, dishwasher, a decent view out the window, and access to a decent park), and actually large enough for a single person, the thought of returning there each day filled me with the desire to run away from this place and never come back.
I’m glad I stuck it out.
Although almost everyone I spoke with—except the little shrieking critters known as elementary school students whom I was supposedly teaching—was incredibly nice to me, and although I had an okay job which allowed me plenty of time to write every day, I existed in this state of severe loathing for six months. After taking a break in Southeast Asia, which everyone should be able to do, I came back to Korea. Things slowly improved. I met my wife, moved from Busan to Gyeongju (probably the nicest city in the country), and finagled a much-coveted university job.
Now, I’m about to leave again, this time with a wife and two kids in tow. While Korea has plenty of problems, I find myself constantly stopping to smell the roses—the flowers blossoming everywhere in the growing heat, their colors so intense it hurts your eyes to look at them. I ate snails with soybean sauce the other day, and what’s more, I not only enjoyed it, but decided I would definitely have to return to Korea one day, specifically for the food—all because of those damn snails. Yesterday afternoon, I sighed at a very decent sunset.
The sight of the rolling mountains of greenery basking in the haze, the comfort of having the best kind of job in the world—one that gives you enough money to survive without working you to the bone or shaming you to the very depths of your soul—all of it I will miss so desperately, it’s just ridiculous. If I could speak to myself when I arrived here, he would never believe the result, not in a million years, but here I am.
We’re moving to Maine because that’s where my family is (and it’s beautiful), but we don’t know how long we’ll stay there. It’s obscenely peaceful, but with that peacefulness comes a boredom that had me longing for the terrifying roads, the rush through the crowded marketplaces, the definite heart rate surge that comes whenever someone makes an effort to speak with me in Korean. I’ve already basically given up on finding a job that’s even a tenth as decent as the one I have; I’m fighting my apparent fate as an Artist With A Day Job with every last weapon in my intellectual arsenal.
But in a sense, I’m thankful there’s so much I’ll miss about this place. My students and colleagues, the friends I’ve made, the teachers who care for my kids, the daily ridiculousness of being part of a visible, obvious ethnic minority which occupies less than a percentage point of the total population. People still stare, notice, objectify, get tense, act strange, and treat me differently from everyone else even after eight years, and although it can get to me sometimes, I try to roll with it. In America, I’m just another pasty white dude. In Korea, I’m THE FOREIGNER, the object of numerous curious glances, and not all of them from unhappy old folks.
Holy shit, I will miss this place. I’m sorry we got off on a rough start, Korea, but I’m glad it worked out in the end. If you weren’t so insane about hagwons, I’d be happy to stay here, but I can’t abandon my kids to the test-taking education machine, nor can I sit back while Donald Trump attempts to transform my country into a satellite state of Putin’s Russia. Goodbye, and good luck. I hope, desperately, that I can return here every year. I hated you in the beginning, but I think pretty highly of you now.
You’ve become a part of who I am, and I’m grateful for it.