“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” – Nelson Mandela
Next week I am going to South Korea. It’s my first visit to the country since 2012 when I left after living there for two years. I am bursting with excitement to visit all my old haunts and experience all the things that make up my memories of my time in Korea – but a small part of me is slightly trepidacious.
I moved to South Korea with Paul when I was 25 years old. It was a bit of a crazy thing to do but we had nothing to lose. I was sleeping on an airbed in my brother’s spare room. All my possessions fitted in a rucksack. The UK was in the middle of a huge recession. Since returning from travel the previous year, I had dipped my toe into my previous job as a newspaper journalist but it wasn’t a profession I wanted to return to. We saw an advert looking for native English teachers to move to Korea and we decided to go for it.
My days in Korea consisted of getting a bus through the fields to a little school in the countryside, standing in a classroom in front of forty children alongside a Korean teacher and trying to teach them English. Lunch was served in the canteen, a pile of Korean food heaped on a silver tray. At the end of the day I’d get the bus back to our tiny apartment and Paul and I would get dinner in our neighbourhood kimbap (like a Korean sushi) joint. At weekends we would get the bus into Seoul and spend our days exploring the many neighbourhoods of the vast city. Sometimes we’d spend the early hours in karaoke rooms (noraebangs) or bottle bars that stayed open all night then crash in a jjimjilbang (a spa where everyone sleeps on the floor wearing matching pyjamas).
Our time in Korea was an intense haze of neon lights set to a soundtrack of thumping Kpop and a constant smell of hot chilli paste. We made friends with a bunch of other English teachers in the same situation as us from the UK, Ireland, USA, Canada and South Africa, and traded stories about classroom antics and navigating cultural differences over samgyupsal barbecue and bottles of Hite beer. It wasn’t fun every day, living in a country that is very different to your own can be frustrating, but it was never boring.
We left Korea five years ago. I am now 33 and Paul and I own a flat in our hometown of Glasgow and enough possessions to fill it. The rucksack is in the back of the cupboard. We both have steady, full time jobs. On Facebook, I have seen the friends we shared that crazy adventure with return to their respective countries. Some have got teaching degrees, some have gone to other careers, some are homeowners, married or with children. For all of us, that time in Korea is a period in our lives that is past.
Something Paul and I are planning to do on our trip to Korea next week is visit the old schools we worked in. Just as the children who came running into our classrooms wearing shorts and carrying Angry Birds backpacks will now be the high school students walking past in their uniforms preparing for their final year exam, we will also be older and different.
Things began to change for me as the end of my second year in Korea approached. I knew for a fact I didn’t want to stay in Korea any longer but I realised I knew I had a decision to make – and I had the frightening realisation that the decision would have repercussions on my life for many of the years that followed. The mindset of living in the now began to ebb away.
I contemplated my options: I could use my two years of teaching experience in Korea and go back to university to do a teaching degree. But I knew deep down teaching was a vocation that hadn’t set its sights on me. I knew I didn’t want to go back to newspaper journalism with its instability and constant redundancies. When we left the UK the job market was horrendous; I worried profusely I would spend months unemployed. I didn’t want to move to another country and teach English there because for the first time I my life I found I didn’t want to live a year at a time with no idea of what came next. I wanted to know what I was going to be doing for the next few years. For the first time, I worried about the future. Suddenly, approaching 28 felt very different from 25.
Luckily things worked out well for me and Paul. We had started a website in South Korea and that experience, combined with our previous experience in journalism, led us to get jobs we are happy in. We have spent the last five years building the wonderful life we have in Glasgow. But yet, when I about our upcoming trip to South Korea, I am trepidacious.
Because we can’t go back. We can go back to the country, the town we lived in, visit our old haunts and reminisce, but we can’t go back to that period of our life when we were 25 and ate kimbap for dinner every night, met friends for impromptu barbecue after work, got the bus into Seoul every weekend and never thought about what we would do next. Visiting Korea will be like stepping directly back in time and being confronted with who I was then. It will be making a pilgrimage to a former life.
I will be there but I won’t be who I was.