Monday, 3 March 2014

So Long, South Korea

Well, I finally made it. After sixteen months teaching in Korea, I'm finally ready to say goodbye to this country and move onto bigger adventures. It's hard to reflect on my time here without resorting to pithy clich├ęs that I've already said a hundred times on this blog. Nevertheless, I'll try.

My life has never been more exciting, enriching, or as adventurous as it has these past sixteen months. Yet it's also never been more challenging, stressful, or draining. During my first few months here, the workload really got to me, and time seemed to move so slowly, to the point that the idea of finishing my year's contract seemed like a monumental undertaking, one I wasn't sure I was up to. I'm glad that I fought through not only to the end of the year, but an extra four months as well, because things got a lot easier as time went on. Even if there were ups and downs, this country has given me so many wonderful things that were worth the difficulties I experienced in the workplace. I found a wonderful partner who I'm about to travel the world with, had exotic adventures and experiences I would never have found anywhere else, and I made a nice chunk of money which allows me to continue finding more experiences elsewhere. And I shouldn't forget to mention the affinity I found with my students: Korean kids are certainly a headache at times, but they're also incredibly sweet and adorable, and have definitely reinforced how much I'd like to have children of my own someday.

Korea is not an easy country to define; it has subtleties and complexities that prevent one from summarising it in simple catch-all phrases. I know I would never have found the time to learn properly about these complexities from books or other forms of media, and so feel tremendously fortunate to have experienced them firsthand by living here, among its people, its landscapes and its cities. There is still so much I don't know or understand, and sometimes I regret not immersing myself more in the language, the local news and the pop culture. But what I have seen has given me a great respect for the Korean people and their country. I've been very impressed by their dignity and overall decency. Yes, you can criticise their culture's conformity and its obsession with beauty and appearance, but what comes with that is also a level of respectability that you don't find in other countries. People are almost invariably polite, well-mannered and honest. Despite Koreans' love for alcohol, I rarely saw the sort of obnoxious drunken behaviour that I've seen among people back home in England; people here remain dignified and respectful towards one another in nearly every public sphere. I don't know what goes on in homes, behind closed doors, but what I've seen with my own eyes has put the people in very good light.

Then there's the country itself, with its stunning mountainous scenery, its festivals, beaches, and endless historic sites, all of which gave Angela and me something new to do on pretty much every weekend we  were here. We crossed parting seas, relaxed in Seoul's pet cafes, saw a live Starcraft battle, got filthy at a mud festival, went briefly into communist North Korean territory, to name a few experiences... If you haven't already seen my recent Top 50 Experiences in South Korea post, I humbly recommend you take a look at what else is on offer.

And I mustn't forget to mention the cuisine. I've always been quite gastronomically illiterate, and I knew nothing of kimchi, jjimdak or Korean barbecue before I came here; but now I count them among my favourite foods, and I shall sorely miss them once I leave. There's also the little things, like the triangular gimbaps they sell at 7-11, the greasy street food on sticks, or the delicious ssamjang sauce they serve with meals here. Oh, and the yellow radish; I had no idea how much I liked radish until I came to Korea. It's all made me incredibly eager to sample as much local food as I can during my future travels.

Here's a rundown of some of the things we did in the run up to our departure:

A few months after I arrived in Korea, I started saving most of my 1000-won and 5000-won notes,  as well as coins. I stored them in this large water container, and recently poured them out and counted them.
Angela helped me sort over a year's worth of savings. After a few hours of counting, we found that I had made around 3 million won. That's about 2800 US dollars, or 1700 British pounds! It felt pretty good taking it to the bank and putting it in my account.
During our last full weekend in the country, we went with Angela's Korean family to Anseong, a small city about an hour or so from Seoul, where we visited the tombs of some deceased relatives.
We took part in a libation ritual that involved giving wine and fish to the mountain to appease the gods and honour the deceased. Here we are pouring wine on the tomb of Angela's grandma.

Afterwards, we went to what is supposedly one of the best restaurants in Anseong. It was built in a stunning traditional Korean architectural style.

We ate some incredibly tender galbi, along with bulgogi and vegetables. It was one of the best meals I've had in Korea.

Then we visited a nearby gochujang farming area. Gochujang is a red paste often used in Korean dishes such as bibimbap, and is traditionally fermented for several years in large earthen jars.

Saying goodbye to Angela's family was a very sad moment. They've been incredibly good to us during our time here, welcoming us to their home, feeding us delicious meals, and showing us cool local sights and experiences to which we would otherwise have been oblivious. We're going to miss them very much, and are hopeful we'll return to Korea someday to see them again.

Also during our last full weekend here, we went out partying with our friends for the last time. Here we are at an Irish bar in Hongdae.

Our last week at work was also the last week of the Korean academic year (which starts in March). Angela saw her pre-school kids graduate, and was very emotional when it came to saying goodbye, since she had taught many of them for 18 months. I had only been teaching my SLP students for four months. Nevertheless I was also sad to say goodbye.
After our last day at work, SLP took all the teachers out to a nearby restaurant where we ate delicious barbecued food, drank lots of soju and beer, made speeches about our time in Korea, and said our final goodbyes to many of the people who've become such good friends during our time here. It was a sad time to be sure, but also a good send-off for everyone leaving, and a good introduction to SLP for the new teachers replacing us.

On the day before our flight, we moved out of our apartment and stayed in a motel in Gwangmyeong, my old area. We had one last Korean meal at one of our favourite restaurants in the area, and said goodbye to Inseop, the manager who we'd befriended there.
The next morning we took the bus to Incheon Airport. It's been repeatedly voted the best airport in the world. There was a string quartet playing classical music in the departures lounge.

Almost on our way.
This was one of our last views of Korea, before we got two flights, totalling 15 hours, to Florida.

There's not much else left to say in this post, except that we are now in Florida with Angela's family. It's been really great spending time with them so far, and we are loving the warm, sunny weather. We're sad to say goodbye to Korea, but so damn excited for the coming adventures. Expect some Florida posts soon!

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