I wrote this on the flight home last Saturday. Late update, since there was no wifi throughout my travels.
11278 meters in the air.
847 miles from destination.
An hour and thirty-seven minutes until I land in Atlanta, where I will go through immigration and make my way to my home airport in New York.
I have so much to say, my brain is not putting the thoughts and words and feelings together correctly. I feel tangled and messy and confused and hopeful but scared.
It still doesn’t feel real. Since I left school for the final time yesterday, Friday, I have felt like I’m still going to walk back into my office on Monday morning. Like I will go to sleep and wake up in my host family’s apartment again. Like nothing will have changed. But it has.
On Thursday, my final class ended with my co-teachers bringing me beautiful flowers, a cake, and a gift. I secretly loved that class, and I was already happy that they were my last class before leaving. When I first arrived in the fall, they were my largest and worst behaved class — I called them “the charmers” because there were four particular students who were very charming but they worked the whole class into an uncontrollable mess. They have been much better this semester. And on Thursday, as I was presented with my departing gifts, the same 32 roudy-yet-charming high school boys made me tear up as they applauded and asked to take pictures with me. I couldn’t have asked for better company to shed a few tears in front of.
Again on Friday morning, my students got the best of me. I went upstairs immediately to say goodbye to the third years, who I only taught last fall. Many of them were not aware that I was leaving. I visited all ten homeroom classes. I got through the first seven with a smile on my face and a lot of hand-hearts. And then I approached the last three and saw one of my favorite students, and said “I’m leaving. Today is my last day.” And my nose got stuffy and the water just started welling up in my eyes. And he gave me a hug, and shook my hand. And I said goodbye to the last three homerooms, and it hurt.
Afterwards, I said goodbye to all of the teachers offices. And the Principal. And the Vice Principal. The Vice Principal’s desk is located in the largest teachers office. About fifteen or twenty teachers sit there. Only about two of them are English teachers. The Vice Principal announced my departure, and the whole office gave me a standing ovation. Teachers I didn’t even work with. Teachers I barely knew. Feelings: 3, Cody: 0.
I closed my phone and bank accounts. I felt like I was no longer a person.
I went home. I packed. I met another student — I should say “friend” now — for coffee. My last trip to Starbucks. Earlier in the week, I wrote a thank you note in Korean to the awesome Starbucks team at my local shop because they have been beyond friendly this year and they know what I want without me saying it (soy milk in everything, vanilla syrup when I order a latte). When I walked in, they gave me a free final drink, which I wasn’t expecting. And I wished I didn’t have to go. I have a lot of memories at that Starbucks.
My host family bought me fried chicken for my final dinner. The fried chicken in Korea is the best. American fried chicken is really not good comparatively. You haven’t lived until you’ve eaten Korean fried chicken. I was grateful. And I wished I didn’t have to go.
We loaded my suitcases into the car. I tried to sleep. I didn’t want to.
I woke up around 2am. My host family drove me to my airport bus at 3:30am. I was on the bus at 4:15am. We were at the airport at 7am. My flight boarded around 10am. And now… it’s 10am again. On Saturday again, thanks to the international dateline. And I am a little more than halfway home. And I am still trying not to cry.
Over the next few weeks, I anticipate a lot of culture shock. And I know a lot of things will have changed — because of my own knowledge and plans, but also because of my absence from American and my presence in Korea. I am a year older. So is my family… my mother, my aunts and uncles, my cousins. My relationships with them have changed by default. Thanks to technology I have talked to my mother consistently over the past year. It almost feels like I haven’t been away.
I laugh saying that, because of all the times I wanted to go home, mostly during the winter holiday season. But now, my world has turned and I feel that same way about Korea. I want to go home to Daejeon. To my school. To the people and places that became my everyday routine. The people and places I fell in love with. Our relationships have already changed, too. Will we keep in touch? Will they forget me? Have I made as much of an impact on their life as they have on mine? Only more time and more travel can give me the answers to these questions.
To think I used to cry every time I went back to college in California, because I would miss my family, even though I loved school. And now going home feels so unnatural. The first time I went to Korea, they told us that once you live in another country, it will always be a part of you. And when you go home, not everyone is going to understand why you randomly burst out in another language by accident, or why you can’t stop head-bowing to people when you enter stores, or how you feel like half your heart is missing.
Bracing for impact. I guess this is growing up.
Official renewee school notifications came out today.
It’s over. I officially didn’t renew. I wake up every morning and wonder if I should have, but what use is it?
No one renewed in Jeonju, the city where I studied previously, so no one renewed at the school that I wanted in my old neighborhood. I should have had more foresight. The plan was to stay two years. I should not have broken that promise to myself.
The form for renewing came out during an onslaught of problems at my school. I was so frustrated with the lack of opportunities for me to pursue language study and volunteer opportunities like I had intended, that I decided to just go home. Then to go to D.C. I assumed I’d get a job. I assumed things would be easier.
I have been trying to push leaving out of my mind and instead think about arriving, and how many new doors will open back in the U.S. But right now, that’s really hard to see. Because all I see are names on a paper, a name at my school, empty spaces where I should have been, and the end of an opportunity I was once so excited about, and so thankful for.
Right now, it’s hard for me to see beyond that plane ride home.
Here is a list of deep philosophical questions I have pondered about homestay life during the past year:
- Would my host mother still peel vegetables in the back bedroom if I wasn’t here?
- Would my host family turn off the TV in the common room (well, they have one in the kitchen and one about 10 feet away in the living room) to go watch it in their back bedroom if I wasn’t here?
- Do they just really like their back bedroom?
- Should I sit in the common room more? (Answer: Yes)
- When I sit out here, why does no one else sit out here? (Answer: I don’t know.)
- What do they eat for meals I am not home for?
- Do they serve me more “westernized” food?
- Why do they only have 5 channels and sometimes question people about why they are turning on the TV?
- Why do they serve me an egg and spam every morning, while everyone else gets other things? (This may be partially my fault for saying “I would like to eat an egg with my breakfast” earlier this year.)
- Why does my host sister not talk to me? (Then again, she’s never really home.)
- If I was someone else who spoke better Korean, would they have invited me to Chosuk festivities?
- Things seem to be more awkward when I miss at least one meal a week because I am eating with other people. Should I bring them a cake or something?
I am grateful for my homestay this year for several reasons, because they have a nice home and they’ve tried to cater meals towards my restricted diet. Yet at the same time, I wish I had a more cultural experience, whatever that means. I mean, perhaps the very-westernized way in which they appear to me is just the way they are — but I highly doubt it.
One of Fulbright’s big sayings is “Don’t Compare.” I have not found myself comparing my homestay with other Fulbrighter’s homestays much at all this year — I figure that it is pretty pointless to compare, because even people with a better homestay might have a worse school situation, or some other less-positive aspect to their life in Korea. No one has a perfect situation in life in their home country, much less a foreign one. But I found it more difficult to not compare with me removed from the situation (“what if I wasn’t here”) or an imaginary genius (“what if someone better was here”).
But even those comparisons are kind of stupid. Clearly I’m not doing things entirely wrong — my students seem to really like me, and so do other people I have met. And living with a stranger for a year is hard no matter how extroverted you are, but more than 11 months have gone by with amazingly few issues. So today I started answering questions in my head. “Would my host mom still peel vegetables in the back bedroom if I wasn’t here?” They can do whatever they want. I just stay kind and respectful. It’s almost time to go.
Less than one month.
I don’t want to count down anymore. I want time to stop. Even without looking at calendar, I can feel the change in my bones, aching as if a summer thunderstorm is rolling in. I had a dream the other night that woke me out of a sound sleep in panic: I didn’t have my Korean phone anymore, and I couldn’t download KakaoTalk (messaging application) on my iPad for some reason, and I couldn’t get in touch with anyone, and I was in a total upset panic in my dream before I woke up.
I guess I’m a little bit scared.
For the first time in my life, I am heading somewhere but I don’t know where that is. I need a job. I am supposed to be moving to D.C. for graduate school, but nothing seems quite right. My mom told me it’s because I have lots of good choices - but I guess the glass is half empty from over here, because I feel like all of the choices are wrong.
I suppose living in a foreign country will mess with your mind like that. It’s been a year. It usually takes a year just to get adjusted to a new place and settle down a little. And now that I’m settling, I’m picking up the pieces again, putting them in two large suitcases and trying to reassemble them wherever I land.
My thoughts are tangled these days. Because I am happy. I want joy. If I am angry or sad, it’s because I am happy. Everything is bittersweet. Everything is hard to wrap my head around. I am angry at myself for not enjoying teaching more. I am angry for letting one or two individuals at my school affect my time there so much during the renewal process this spring that I decided not to renew and to go home.
I am sad because I will be leaving my students. Things have changed in the past few weeks. The Youth Diplomacy and Activism Conference really helped me bond with my students, and I really enjoyed it. Even going to school on Saturdays. Already having my final classes with my second years broke my heart. I am sad because I have found someone who cares for me, and our relationship is so easy, even with a language barrier.
And there is still so much left for me to do here. There are so many places to see, and so much work to be done. I want to inspire.
I want to come back and I haven’t even left yet. I wish there was a sign to tell me what I was doing was right.
I suppose someday, when everything is sorted out, I’ll look back on all of this and laugh. I’ll fondly remember the wonderful times I had here, and I’ll slowly forget about the bad ones, and eventually, I’ll feel like wherever I am is where I am supposed to be. Whether its back in the States, or back here in Korea. To the future, 건배!
On Friday, I took four of my best students (two third years who I taught last semester, and two second years who I still teach) to the first Daejeon/Chungcheon Provincial Youth Diplomacy and Activism Conference (YDAC). A Fulbright ETA set up YDAC in a different city a few seasons ago, and it has been very successful, so the Daejeon ETAs decided to establish one here, as well. It is funded by the U.S. Embassy, and consists of resolution hearings, a mock crisis scenario and some other activities.
It was SUCH a long day. My students and I got on the bus at 7:30am and we didn’t get home until about 10pm, but it was a great experience. And my school got 3rd Place (out of 9 high schools). It might not seem like a big deal, but the top three teams were VERY close in points (tenths! tenths of a point separate!) and the two teams who scored better than us are more well-established schools with better support for activities like YDAC than our school. So I think we did pretty well!
I’m actually kind of sad that it’s over. I enjoyed spending time with them, even though it meant I was at school on Saturday afternoons. I hope my students remember YDAC as a really good experience.
Aside from YDAC, I have been trying to stay busy and enjoy my last month here. I will really miss my students. They have supported me so much. I wish I could have watched them graduate next winter. And I will miss the people I have met outside of school, the people who really gave me a life here. I am so grateful.
I’m already ready to come back. Korea will always be in my bones.