Today began like a normal day for most people in South Korea.
For most people, alarm clocks stirred families awake one member at a time and into their familiar routine of starting their day. Moms and dads prepared for work and children rejoiced only slightly about summer break knowing that much of their much deserved time off will be taken up by hagwons (learning academies) as parents insist they have an ‘academic edge’ against their peers. This ‘keeping up with the Kims‘ gambit is well known here in the peninsula and continues into adulthood where even young professionals forgo even dating for night classes to add lines to their resume in the hopes of standing out to potential employers to prove that they have the gristle to survive the maw of the business world. Still, what Koreans have done since the war ended in 1953 is nothing short of remarkable, turning a bombed out wasteland into a juggernaut of an economy with global titans such as Samsung, Hyundai and Kia now being household names. All that hard work has paid off.
Amidst the rigamarole of business as usual, a little known family of 3 in the Hyundai Hometown apartment block #209 complex began their journey of a million steps. The apartment that has been theirs for the last 4 years has been slowly gutted of its contents through clothing drives, weekend moving dates and the final dagger which was last Saturday’s moving company that boxed up the essentials for a long hibernation in a shipping container crypt that wouldn’t see light for at least 12 months.
Korea has been our home, and a good one. With it’s Confucianist history, Koreans respect their elders, show kindness to others and are quick to acknowledge what is right for the greater good. Teachers are revered. There is an underlying order of things. It’s safe. It’s clean. It offers beautiful spring time temperatures with cherry blossoms and lilacs perfuming walkways with skiing and snowboarding opportunities in the wintertime that drew the olympics here two years ago. As a tourist, you’ll come to embrace the quintessential trappings of Frommer’s and Lonely Planet guidebooks such as Insadong, Gyeongbokgung Palace, and the Hanoks of Bukchon. As a local you’ll eventually come to accept ‘Makgeolli’ or rice wine, ‘Gangnam Style’ or showing off, and Jimjilbangs, naked saunas with strangers, which, by the way, would be a great name for a rock band. Like Graham Green said about Vietnam: “You come to Vietnam and you understand a lot in a few minutes, but the rest has got to be lived.”, the same applies to Korea. Well, that applies to everywhere you live in life.
A westerner trying to change the far East is an exercise in futility. However, after living here for 4 years, we’re left trying to make sense of our time here. Did we leave our community in better shape than we found it? Were we a positive change? We’ve helped build a school through experiential education and technology training programs. We befriended many locals who we call good friends. Just before leaving, we had dinner with a Korean family that we’ve been friends with for 13 years. Their son and daughter were in my class back in Vietnam and have now gone on to college and points beyond. How time sure flies.
The start of a big trip is always exciting but there is calming joy that builds near its end and the growing prospect of coming home. Swapping stories with best friends. Reconnecting after a long hiatus. That warm embrace. However, leaving forever is hard, and the excitement of what lies ahead has been tempered by melancholy of an uncertain future and not knowing when we’ll see our closest confidants from here, or if we ever will again.
So our great trip finally begins. In the meantime, look for ‘Naked Saunas with Strangers‘ coming to a town near you.