Tuesday, August 28, 2012

안녕 - In Peace

Well, the frequency of my posts clearly faded alongside my enthusiasm for living in Korea and the sense of unfamiliarity and curiosity that used to come with everyday life here. Still, as I ride a train through the tail end of Typhoon Bolaven up to Seoul where I'll stay with friends before flying home tomorrow, I feel like I should take advantage of the free wireless to write one last post.

So, after two years, what is the lasting impact that Korea has made on me? I suspect I won't really know until many more years down the road, but I can speculate. It's left me with a slow and grudgingly formed fondness for Korean food, a daring sense of culinary bravery, and about 10 more pounds than I arrived with. It's made me much more comfortable with being naked around large numbers of strangers. It's given me an amount of confidence (or perhaps just removed any cares I once had for what others think of me) that only living in a place where you will always, always stand out and be thought strange, no matter what you do, can give you. Living in Korea gave me the motivation to become fully literate in another writing system, and to learn how to speak (a shamefully small amount of) the corresponding language. The low price of Korean medical care has given me perfect vision the moment I open my eyes in the morning. And living here has given me a healthy understanding of just how little I truly understand Asian culture, and Korean culture in particular. As Socrates pointed out, the more we learn, the more we understand that we know absolutely nothing.

My eyes have been opened to the vastness of the world, to the fact that, even if I spent every single day of my life traveling, I would never get to experience (or, in all likelihood, even know of the existence of) all of the countless cultures of the countless people who populate the earth. And yet, on nearly the exact the opposite side of the world from the place I call home, I experienced so many of what I like to call "small world moments" and found so many unexpected connections spanning the globe that I never felt very far away from home.

I feel humbled and comforted by the sameness of people all over the world, yet it was the small differences that began to wear on me day to day. It's one thing to travel within a different culture and another entirely to live within one. I may have said this before, but as an expat, no matter how much you try to go with the flow and accept the differences of your host culture, some things will just never be ok. You'll find things that, given your upbringing and cultural background, will always be unacceptable to you. I found quite a few of those things in Korean culture, as I'm sure I would have found in any culture so different from my own. Is it possible that living in abroad has actually made me less tolerant and, perhaps, more prejudiced? I'm hoping it's just a symptom of the fact that it's time to go home, and perhaps it's been time for a while now.

So now what? Well, thanks to the best thing that I found (or that found me) while living in Korea, I'm off to Ireland! Not for as long as I'd hoped, but long enough to at least start getting to know Paul's family, friends, and culture better than I could through stories and Skype chats. Then, fingers crossed, I'll be settling back in DC with an excellent job to await the start of Paul's grad school courses (more crossed fingers).

The other blessing I am leaving Korea with is the set of friends I would never have met if I had not come here. They have been my second family, and I know that, no matter where I travel, I am likely to run into a familiar face. The Korean greetings that are roughly translated as "hello" and "goodbye" have deeper meaning. They are, more literally, "Are you peaceful?" and "Go/stay in peace." So that's what I wish for the friends I've met in Korea - that you have peace in your hearts, and that you stay safe until we meet again. Notice I didn't say, "I hope we meet again" – I had best be seeing every last one of you again!