Buddhists and motivational speeches have both taught that nothing in life is permanent or guaranteed. This becomes clearer when time is measured in one-year contracts.
With the first semester coming to a close in South Korean public schools, many expats are preparing for their next adventures. Many of them I consider my friends.
The thing with being a veteran (I had only been here seven months at this point. Calling myself a “veteran” then makes me laugh now, even if the comments in the post from a few lifers rankled me at the time –ed.) is, you start to see a lot of casualties. It starts slow–one outlier here or there that got a hagwon contract on an off-month. But then, either February or August arrive and…
…it’s a bloodbath. Koreabridge becomes a bone-picker’s paradise: everything goes up for sale, from bicycles to furniture to videogame consoles, to computers, musical instruments and, of course, jobs. Lots of jobs.
February and August are the times for EPIK intakes, when old contracts end and new ones begin. Not everyone does only a year of duty and then flies home. Some stay longer. Many don’t. So, if you’ve gotten close with anyone here, it can be a bittersweet time of year. There are plenty of celebrations, but at what cost?
I have now been in South Korea since February 2013, if you do not count the brief times in 2005 and 2010. There are plenty of people who have been here longer. But, today I see many more faces in my Facebook friends feed that have moved on to other adventures than I did last year. When I take a trip into Busan during the weekend, I see many, many more unrecognizable faces in the bars, on the beaches and in the subway cars than I did in that same time.
But, I still see many I do recognize. And many of them are leaving.
These people can be bundled into three categories: There are those you’ve encountered here and there who you never developed a solid opinion on. They come, they go, like you. They don’t leave much of an impression on you with their departure, as you likely won’t should you be the first to go. A vast majority can fit in here.
There are those you have maybe hung out with a few times, maybe at a bar, maybe at a birthday party. They’re nice, you’ve had a couple good conversations with them. They’ve enhanced your life in some way. But, when they leave, you know you’ll never see them again. It’s nothing personal, it’s just the reality of an ephemeral expat lifestyle. Many people can be placed in this category, but there are certainly fewer than in the first.
Finally, there is the limited, exclusive group of people you are proud to call good friends. These are the ones that, when the time comes to say goodbye, you can feel at least some comfort in knowing you’ll see each other again. It may take years, but it’s inevitable. At least, you’d like to think so. Whether it’s time or money, these things don’t matter when discussing this group of people. You’ll find a way.
While the last group may be the closest, it’s the second category I would argue stings the most in the long run. The first category contains wisps of smoke. The last features a solid foundation one can build on beyond Korea. The second one lies somewhere inbetween. You know you won’t buy the plane ticket to see them on the other side of the world, or even the country, but their absence has taken something from you.
The question is: how much “something” can one stand before they can’t stands it no more? Tell me, Popeye, how much?
This is on many people’s minds around this time of year. The other day, after trying live octopus for the first time with Tom Gates of The Red Dragon Diaries (look for that video from him in the next couple weeks), I mentioned a video he recently posted. And we continued the conversation: when is it time to leave?
He’s got six months to think long and hard about his next step. Technically, so do I. But, I am pretty sure I want to renew for at least one more turn. The landscape, however, will no doubt look very different in March 2015.
I don’t feel like the bloodbath was hitting me quite so hard last year, despite the impending departure of one of my best friends made in Korea (in fact, the very first friend I made here way back in 2010, during one of my “false starts”). Even if she was leaving, even if things were changing, life as an English teacher in South Korea felt a lot more permanent in summer 2013 than it does in summer 2014.
My best friend from back home came to teach in July 2013. That has something to do with it. I did not see her for five months and then we were back in each other’s lives. And while I now live the next city over, we see each other enough still that it feels like we’ll always see each other. She extended her contract another three months, but before the end of the year, she won’t be in South Korea anymore. The same can be said for almost every single person in the photos above.
And I cannot help but wonder how it must feel for those who have been doing this for three, five, ten years. Unless you’re married, in a committed, long-term relationship or have somehow held on to close friends that have stuck it out as long as you, how do you cope? How many new friends can one make, only to see them exit before you? Does desire to plant roots not increase for some, the pleasures of “The International Life” enough to contain them. Some do better than others. Some don’t. Only they really know for sure if they’re happy with how things have turned out or not.
Despite all this maudlin language, I remain happy most of the time with my life in Korea as it is today.
I have a fairly easy, decent-paying job that rivals even my previous job last year in Busan. Most of the time, I genuinely enjoy interacting with the children.
But, I am also 35. And while I do not subscribe to the notion one has to be in a certain position in their lives by a certain time, one thing I will admit age does is it allows for the accumulation of memories and experiences that can begin to lose their good taste if too often repeated. Meanwhile, the flavor on the tongue from saying goodbye so many times can grow stronger and more bitter. I will remain vigilant in not letting myself grow bitter beside it.