Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Remembering Korea

It’s nearly been a year since I left Korea, that’s a sad realization, and lots has happened since then, I mean I don’t want to get too ahead of myself, I didn’t leave Korea until August 2012 and we’re now in May 2013, but it feels like a long time ago, and in some other sense it feels like it was only yesterday that I boarded my flight out of the country. I’ve only now started to fully realise exactly what my time in Korea meant to me, it’s in these moments where nothing much is going on, that we really start to reflect on our past experiences.

A quick update then I suppose, since returning from travelling I’ve been doing odd jobs, I’m currently working a night shift saving money ready to go to University in September. I’ll be going back to qualify as a teacher, something my time in Korea helped me decide to do. I’m looking forward to September as I’m getting pretty tired of not doing anything meaningful. Working in my school in Korea gave me a real sense of purpose which I’ve been missing for nearly a year now, although I wasn’t contributing much to the world on a global scale, I felt like I was making a difference in someone’s life on a daily basis, I felt like the work I was doing had meaning, that it was worthwhile, that it benefited somebody. I’ve been missing that feeling, and it’s certainly a contributing factor to why I’m missing my life in Korea.

I clicked onto my schools website today and flicked through the photographs of events the school has held this past year, and I read about some of the achievements my former students have made since my departure. I felt very proud looking through them. I also noted how much the school has changed since I left, my old co-teacher, teacher Yoon, has left, as has the infamous Mr. Chae and my favourite Kindergarten teacher. All have moved on, it is unbeknownst to me exactly where they are now, but wherever they may be I hope they are well and doing something amazing. Students have come and gone and the school looks different to how I remembered it. The corridors I used to roam have changed, the experience I had in Korea nobody will ever have again, because nothing is the same amongst foreign language teachers living there. Everything changes so quickly, I think that if I had stayed another year it wouldn’t be as I remember it now, I’d have a new co-teacher, I’d have a new schedule, I’d have different students and different people would be living in my building. The experience I had, and the memories I have are frozen in time, nothing more than memories now, there is no way I can return to that era of my life, not even if I wanted to.

But that shouldn’t make me sad, or nostalgic, it should make me smile, and it does. I’m incredibly proud of myself for what I have achieved yet sometimes it feels like it wasn’t me who achieved it. Like it was somebody else and I was just an outsider looking in, did I really live up there on that hill in that apartment in that yellow house with those purple windowsills. Did I really walk down that slope everyday to school, catch the bus every morning and gaze out of the window watching the mountains and the rivers flow by? Was that me, there on a street in Seoul waiting to cross, on my way back from a Sam Gyeop Sal restaurant, meeting a friend on a corner and buying 1000won pancakes from a street vender? Was that me playing ‘Gawi Bawi Bo’ with my student? Was that me in that last summer camp, fretting about my lesson plans, thinking that my time in Korea would never come to an end? That can’t have been me. But it was.

It feels very odd to have lived that life; it partly has to do with the fact that I have nobody to talk to about it. Nobody I know back home moved away for a year and a half and taught in a Korean school. I can talk to Natalie about certain aspects of life in Korea, and life on the road, which is incredibly helpful, and I think she misses it sometimes as well, but everybody else is too caught up in their day to day lives, and that’s not a complaint of mine, it’s just the way it is. It’s just something I have to live with. I loved Korea! I travelled around it and had all kinds of adventures. I enjoyed teaching those damn cute kids, and somedays when things aren’t so fun at home I wish that Natalie and I were still there.

That initial buzz that I got from being able to drive wherever I wanted instead of catching the bus, or being able to buy chips in the supermarket rather than having to make my own out of potatoes in my apartment quickly subsided, the things I thought were downsides or cons about living in Korea actually turned out to be some of the things that I missed the most. Not being able to understand what people are saying, having everything be a mystery, so much to explore, and so much to learn, and having all that stuff around you all the time that is constantly challenging you. Things are just so easy at home, and easy has never been fun for me, it’s something I’ve never been comfortable with, and though I missed the ease of living in the UK whilst I was in Korea, now I miss the opposite and it’s really strange how time can distort things like that. I didn’t realise until I got home how amazing my lifestyle in Korea was, it wasn’t at all demanding, I didn’t have to worry about anything, I got paid way more than was needed to live very comfortably, I had friends just a knock on a door away, my job was so rewarding, and I always got to go home on time and have all of this free time to do whatever I wanted to do. I was so relaxed and at peace in Korea, and I don’t want to sound angsty, or annoyed at being back in England because that’s not what I’m trying to get at, but I don’t feel at peace here like I did there.

I remember being on a bus snuggled up next to Natalie on the way home from Everland, a resort park in Seoul, it was raining outside, and it was dark, the streetlights shed light upon the perfectly clean pavement of the Seoul streets. I remember thinking how happy I was as I watched the world go by out of the window. How happy that I’d got up and done something with my life, how happy to be in this place and to feel so comfortable and feel so complete. But all things must pass, and I’m not on a Korean bus anymore, time changes things so quickly, and you really never know what is going to happen next. So, I try and make the most of every situation and take each day as it comes. I'm looking forward to starting my course in September and I hope it will give me back my sense of purpose. I'll always remember the incredible experiences I had in Korea, even if I don't get to talk about it that much, I think about it everyday.

This is going to sound super clichéd, but I don’t really care, because whilst I may not live in Korea anymore, in some sense I feel like Korea, will always live in me.  

안녕히 가세요

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Dortmund: There and Back Again

“People say that what we are seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think this is what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.” – Joseph Campbell, the Power of Myth

We landed at Dusseldorf airport after a surprisingly long flight from Moscow. Annoyingly we were last in line to clear immigration and I was getting panicky as I didn't want to leave our friend waiting. The reason that Dortmund, Germany (of all places) was the final stop on our vagabonding odyssey, was because our good friend Alex was currently studying at the technical University there. We hadn't seen Alex since he had visited the UK a couple of years previous, so, we figured, as we were heading home, why not drop him a visit. As we walked through the gates there he was waiting for us, it was a delight to see him and we exchanged the usual pleasantries whilst we sorted out our euros. It was strange being back in Europe, it’s like we were gradually weaning ourselves back into British culture. Once we had sorted ourselves out we headed to the train station to catch the train back to Dortmund. The trains in Germany are pretty flashy, plenty of space, very clean, and we found a seat, it was a big change from the jam-packed, dirty, old Russian metro trains that we were used to by this point.

That evening we dropped our bags at Alex’s flat and shared pizza whilst talking about old times and new. It was great to finally see a familiar face, although we had stayed with Sergey and his family in Russia, I didn't know them extremely well, whereas, Alex was a great friend of mine who I’d been through this amazing experience with (working and travelling in America), we had a lot to talk about. After pizza and a few trusty German beers we settled in for the night as Alex had University the next day.

The next day we met Alex at his University campus for some lunch in their cafeteria (one of the cheapest places to eat in town) and he showed us around the place. Like the trains, it was clean, spacious, and modern and I imagine studying there is a fantastic experience. The sun was shining for the first time in a long while and it was certainly not as cold as Russia so we escaped into Dortmund town and walked around the few sights that there are to see there and also checked out some of the shops and the Christmas markets that we slowly being set up. Dortmund is home to the biggest Christmas tree in the world and they were just putting the finishing touches to that as well. After dinner that evening we went to a local park that lies just behind Alex’s flat.

Now, you have to pay to get into this park, it’s like, two euros or something, I can’t really remember, but it was pretty late and everything was closed up and Alex told us that he had managed to get in without paying before, but alas, the fence seemed unclimbable, maybe they had upped security or something, but we did manage to only pay for one and all clamber into the turnstile. They had these giant swings in the park that we hung out on for ages, we swung, and we talked and we laughed, and we swung some more. It was good to be reunited. We spent a long time that evening walking around the park and taking in the sights and the many children’s playground rides that we had to have a go at!

Alex took the next day off of University and we headed to Cologne (or Koln as it should be called). Koln is about an hour away from Dortmund and we got up nice and early to catch the train, only to realise that during peak times the train prices are extortionate, so, we waited until 9:00am to catch one of the cheaper trains into Koln. I suppose the main draw of Cologne is the giant cathedral, I don’t think I've ever seen a bigger cathedral in my whole life. I've seen bigger temples though, oh, how I miss Asia. The Koln Cathedral soared into the sky and inside it was nothing short of magnificent. We weren't used to going in cathedrals yet and they were a welcome change from temples. We spent a while in here trying to take photos in places we weren't supposed to. Then we moved on and walked through central Koln, it wasn't incredibly busy and we got a flavour of the place, people busking on street corners, the scent of freshly cooked bread wafting from bakeries along every sidewalk. We eventually headed down to the riverside and spent a good while in the chocolate factory nestled on the waterfront. There were three or four floors of chocolate history goodness and we had a good laugh playing the children’s games on the fourth floor. We walked back to the train station after this, through the narrow old alleyways and cobbled streets, that evening we went for a drink in town, there was a German football game on the television. The Germans love their football about as much as the English do, and the Dortmund team is one of the most successful in the country, the people here flaunt their Dortmund t-shirts and scarves with pride.

We spent the next day just hanging around town and had a nice dinner with Alex in the evening and on our last day we did some gift shopping and wrapped up lots of presents ready for coming home, we packed up our things and got excited for the journey back. On our last evening we went out on a cocktail tour of Dortmund with a bunch of Alex’s friends, we must have hit about seven of the ten bars on the cocktail tour and gotten a different drink in each place. It was cool to meet all of Alex’s friends there in Germany and have a ‘proper’ night out with a bunch of students, something we hadn't done in a long time. Cambodia felt like another world away from me.

Alex was kind enough to accompany us to the airport on our way home the next morning. Unfortunately our flight home was the worst flight of all time, we were sat just in front of some incredibly loud and incredibly drunk Germans, who just wouldn't give it a rest and to top that the flight staff weren't much of a help either, they were rude, obnoxious and set in their ways, it was a British airline and I was so looking forward to coming home after being away for such a long time but those flight attendants embodied everything I was trying to get away from in the first place, everything I had learnt I should be. But, we landed on time and after waiting about half an hour for our luggage we walked through the gates and this time it wasn't Alex waiting for us, it wasn't a new foreign destination that we were about to get ready to explore, it wasn't uncertainty and unfamiliarity, it wasn't grandeur and adventure, it was family, and that felt pretty good. I was bundled into a cornucopia of hugs and welcome homes and before I knew it I was in my parents new car, on the motorway, heading home.

I've been home for quite some time now and the reason it’s taken me so long to write this blog is because I've really been toying with how to write this next part. How to conclude; how to write a denouement for this part of my life that I’m happy with. Today, I figured I’d just get on and write it. I must tell you, that of all the adventures and challenges that you face whilst travelling, the hardest, the most heart wrenching, the most challenging, is coming home. Coming home was sad because it marked the end of all that freedom, all that fun, all that peace that I had found on the road, and it was happy because I got to see all of my friends and my family, and go to those places like the New Forest where I’d been longing to go for so long. It turns out that coming home isn't happy, and it isn't sad, it’s just really weird, really strange and really unsettling.

Everything here looks the same as it did when I left, but it feels completely different. There’s that old saying that springs to mind, that you can’t really know your home until you've been away for a long time and come back. You see it through completely new eyes. The trouble is, and continues to be, that I feel like a stranger here. You’d think that feeling would have subsided by now, I've been back in the game here for a while but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m missing something from my life. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate all the home comforts, movie nights, playing games with my friends, earning money, looking to my future, but what I can’t shake is this homesickness, not for home, but for the road.

My friends, and my family, as much as I love them, cannot help in this, the trouble is (without sounding patronising) as exciting and amazing and life enhancing as my travel experiences were (and not just travel but working in Korea as well), my friends can’t relate, my family can’t relate, because they probably don’t share the same values I took out on the road with me in the first place. You can share life changing conversations with people on the road, and in an hour you will have had a meaningful, philosophical exchange of ideas but my friends and family back home still talk about the same things, the same standard conversation patterns that I had escaped for so long, therefore it must be very difficult for them to really take an interest in our adventures, because they don’t want those adventures themselves. It’s one of the most difficult things about being home, trying to tell friends about how I ate a spicy dog soup, or got a gun pointed at me in a Russian slum, or got money stolen in a rice paddy in Laos, or had a conversation with a Cambodian street kid that changed my whole perspective on charity, when you tell these stories there is little response outside of ‘yeah, wow that must have been great’ with no enthusiasm, and then they start talking about television or how they’re fixing their car up or about hook ups they were having, about whose been sleeping with whom, I used to think I was missing out on so much whilst I was travelling, but I wasn't  I’m a changed person, and I've decided that it’s best to keep those amazing travel stories between Natalie and I, they’re ours and nobody can touch them, as Walt Whitman wrote ‘It is best to leave the best untold’.

What I've been trying to do is take what I learnt whilst travelling and apply it to my life here, and in some aspects of my life I've been doing that and in other aspects I haven’t. It’s been very hard. So, what am I doing now? I've been back just over two months, I had a wonderful Christmas with my loved ones and I am settling back into life at home. I have a job, I’m earning money and saving it ready to move out, I’m applying for my PCET PGCE teaching qualification which I’ll be starting in September, and I’m moving forward, onto the next adventure. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about the past year and a half. I’m going to keep living my life creatively, without limits, always trying to create a new adventure or a new experience and hopefully before I know it, I’ll be back out on that road again, creating more memories that will stay with me forever.