A family friend who I have not seen since I was a small child sent me an email this week. This was one of hundreds of messages I received offering kind words, support and many, many pieces of advice. I read every single one of these messages with gratitude and an open mind. Some suggestions jumped out as things that could immediately benefit me, and some I put into my pocket and will be sure to revisit at different stages of the game. This particular message said that he would like to help me with fundraising, and that if I wanted to tap into the ‘Korean’ demographic, I would need to rewrite my ‘you caring’ campaign… get rid of the stuff about the language barrier and frame it in a way that was more complimentary to the people of Korea and my experience here.
Let me be very, very clear about something. I friggin love Korea and I friggin love Korean people. The things I mentioned in my campaign about the language barrier were simply to explain why I was leaving top notch health care where 95% of my medical bills were covered by the government. This was not an easy decision to make, especially with all of the horror stories you read about people in America being bankrupted as a result of medical bills.
I am aware that the language barrier is on me. I can communicate my basic needs in Korean pretty well, and I can read and write Korean. But my conversational Korean is shit. Blame it on the fact that my Korean friends prefer to use English, or that I spend my working hours in an English-language environment, or – most correctly – on my laziness in studying Korean. That said, even if I was proficient, it is doubtful that my understanding of medical terminology would be sufficient in this situation.
The language barrier, while frustrating at times, has also been this wonderfully weird part of my life over the past eight years as an expat. Not being fluent in the language of the country where you live forces you to be very creative in your methods of communication. It adds this weird layer to your day to day… an unpredictability that is, at times, comedic.
The cultural differences, which have also at times proven to be a challenge, have been a practice in adaptability and patience. I had this epiphany about four years ago. I was riding my bike on a clearly marked bike path and three ajjossi (older Korean men) were walking toward me, blocking my route. I was forced to get off my bike and lift it down a curb, whereas they would have simply had to step around, and I thought…’fucking Korean men.’ And then I stopped myself. I realized that they weren’t inconsiderate because they were Korean. They were inconsiderate because they were inconsiderate. Wherever on the planet you live, you will encounter some assholes. Most Korean people I met were not assholes. Quite the opposite.
I wanted to blog about every moment as it happened, but my ‘to do’ list was impossibly long, and the free moments I had, I needed to spend with the people who have become like family to me, not to mention grading hundreds of final exams and tending to my poor dog, who was thoroughly traumatized by the chaos of packing. And so I sat down to write this on my last morning in Korea, and I’m now in the Tokyo airport awaiting my connecting flight to New York. I’m actually grateful for the three hour layover so that I have this chance to reflect on this past week. I know that I know that the longer I wait to process my final days in Korea, the more details will get lost.
A lot of people have said to me this week – don’t worry, we’ll see each other again. I know these were meant to be words of comfort, and so I smiled and hugged and nodded and let the tears roll. The truth of the matter is that unless I return to Korea, which is unlikely, I will never see most of these people again. And the handful of very close friends who I know that I will see again… well, I won’t see them tomorrow, or next week, nor will I ever again live in close enough proximity to say, ‘hey – let’s meet in an hour for dinner and a beer’ or be able to get a group together at a moments notice to play a game of werewolf. I will never sit in the corner table at Ol’ 55 on to kick ass at a Sunday trivia night, or what I like to refer to as ‘nerd church.’ I’ll never play another set of sing-along rock-n-roll covers with my band, The Free Range Coffee Weasels (a band that was born of our constant togetherness). I’ll never sit in a circle of chairs in Vinyl Underground and pass around a guitar with some of the most talented songwriters I’ve ever had the good fortune to come across. We all converged in this city and together, we created this really fucking special community. And I feel, right now, like I went to a New Year’s Eve party and was forced to go home at 11:30. My whole world has been flipped on its side, and my heart hurts right now in a way that I have never known. The amount of love and support that my friends and framily (yes, Seth, I know you despise this portmanteau), cannot be communicated in words. I was given a sendoff that made me feel more loved and more important than I have ever felt in my life.
I know that as soon as I touch down at JFK, my world is going to change dramatically, and I am going to need to dive, head first, into uncharted waters. Fortunately, the shores surrounding those waters will be filled with the comforts of home and people whom I love dearly. And I know this may sound a little fucked up, but at least dealing with this cancer thing will provide some distraction from the grief I am experiencing right now. I hope that in the near future, I have the time and energy to sit down and write about specific people and things that made my life in Korea so amazing. But for now, I’ll just say Sarang Hae (I love you), Busan. Thank you for the magic.
And F%$K you, cancer, for ripping me out of my life. You may think you’ve won this round, but you haven’t. Because you cannot steal the incredible love and positive energy that the people of Busan have infused me with. It’s in my blood, in my soul.