The majority of those who come to South Korea to teach English, to experience a new culture and all the standard trappings of the “expat experience,” usually stay for their first contract—one year. I base this only on anecdotal evidence. After nearly six months here (in a row, at least), I have already said goodbye to several who have stayed their one year; I will say goodbye to several more this month. Maybe some of them extended their stays by a month or two, as Martha did. But, for the most part, for many, it’s one and done.
Some stay on a bit longer. A pair of EPIK teachers that were in my Feb. 2010 orientation are still here. One is certain this is his last turn in Korea. He’s almost certain he’ll go home in February 2014. But, he doesn’t want to say it for sure in case he for some reason backs out and is therefore a hypocrite. The other is hoping his five-year mandatory pay increase doesn’t push him out the door of an organization that has just recently cut most middle and high school NET positions in Busan. These long-term expats are in the minority. This again is all anecdotal.
On Aug. 13, it will be six months (again, in a row) for me in South Korea. If you cluster my time in 2005, and 2010, that amount is closer to nine months. And I am beginning to feel an itch.
I am not as interested in “going big” all the time. That is, being in a foreign country is not so much a thrill anymore that I feel obligated to turn the adventures up to 11. This isn’t to say I’m holed up in my apartment all the times I’m not at school (though that can be said for much of the workweek, since I live pretty far from pretty much anything anyone may be interested in doing in Busan. Also, it’s goddamn hot). But, plenty of what I encounter on a regular basis is no longer exciting. It’s just confusing, because it takes me 10 times longer to figure out what something says than a native speaker. I sympathize so much more with the cluster of Hispanics that lived in Morristown, NJ, where I was before I moved here. People would criticize them for sticking to their own side of town, where everyone looked like them, talked like them, spoke their language and understood their inside jokes. Now, I can’t help but ask: wouldn’t you do the same? Don’t you already?
Images of home, whether it’s a family photo, a place in New Jersey, or just in America, make me think about what I’ll do next more than they did even a month ago, before the sweltering humidity seemed to lock itself down on this part of Asia and decide it won’t leave until fall. Out of curiosity, I looked at journalismjobs.com job listings recently before work. When I left the U.S., I thought I would not get involved in journalism again. I said I was done with it after Patch. Now, its familiarity is inviting. Things change. They always do, so it’s not something for me to be critical of. It simply is. The thought of having a job where I write, and people understand what I’m writing, also is inviting. It’s why I’m writing this now.
To never really be understood most of the time—whether it’s with a shopkeeper, taxi driver, co-worker, student or stranger—for six months straight is exhausting. I’m tired.
These could simply be the thoughts of someone here six months. I’ve been here a while. The newness has worn off. Or, I could be of the majority. My idea has been to stay long enough to pay off my debts, which are sizable but not insurmountable. I still don’t rule this out. Like everything else, these thoughts I have may change. Tangent: my best friend, who is now here in Busan teaching as well, shared on Facebook a good reminder from The Daily Zen: If you’re in a bad situation, don’t worry it’ll change. If you’re in a good situation, don’t worry it’ll change.
Or, it may not. My thoughts of casual bike rides along the Nakdong River may never replace the thought of riding out in deeply rural Upper Freehold, perhaps to Cream Ridge Winery for a few samples and to pick up a bottle. Barbecues with Abel, Zach, Maria, Karen, Warren and the rest of the remaining Princeton crew that haven’t moved away. Thoughts of Cherry Grove Farm and the time I worked there at the farm store, cleaning eggs and stocking freezers of organically-raised meat. Looking at an article about a piece of recently-preserved land in Middletown and, instead of just seeing it online, actually driving out to where it exists. After all, what really can replace home? And, no matter how many times I tell myself that home is wherever you are, because it’s wherever you are, there is no denying the magnetic pull of a place where you feel totally and completely at ease. At least, in your mind, the most powerful thing in existence.
These feelings may pass. They may not. They may grow stronger. And, if that is the case, I’m about to enter the second half of this latest trip to South Korea, and perhaps the final stretch of my nearly-decade-long Korean fantasy.
Six months. The rational side of my brain realizes those longings for things back home are for times that are gone. The places were just the places those good memories happened to be formed. They change, just like everything. And, I can make good memories here, as well. In a few days, I will be able to say I have more days behind me than ahead of me, provided I only stay one year. So, I better get started.