Sunday, February 27, 2011

Reflection on a year in Korea

I am sitting in my empty apartment, my clothes and belongings packed for my departure, and struggling with what to say about my year in Korea.

While I had hoped that the conclusion of a year in a strange, new country should produce some profound inner knowledge to share, it has so far eluded me. Perhaps I have been too busy with the preparations for going home. Perhaps I have unconsciously assimilated some profound new understanding of the world which I will only be able to express upon distance and more reflection. And perhaps it is enough to say that Korea has become familiar, almost home, and I no longer really think twice about living here.

It may, in fact, take some adjustment to move back home. For example, since I can only express a few simple thoughts in Korean, when I am at a store or kiosk I generally present my goods and assume they will know what I want. When I returned to Canada for Christmas vacation, I had to transfer from international to domestic at YVR to fly to Victoria. I dutifully approached the desk, presented the gentleman with my passport, and silently expected him to present me with a boarding pass. He looked at me quizzically and asked, "What would you like?"

"Oh," I replied, somewhat taken aback. "A flight."

"Which one?" This was clearly going to be more work than interacting with a Korean.

"Ummm... to Victoria." I was still not picking up that he wanted to be told all my details, rather than figuring out from the passport.

"Yes, which one?" he replied patiently.

"Ah. 2pm."

"And your name is?"

While becoming so familiar with Korea, I have certainly had a good year. While to some extent that was thanks to exploring new places, a new culture and a delicious new cuisine, I suspect that it was mainly because I was able to build a life I like here. I quickly found and joined a volleyball team and played more weekends than not throughout the year. I initiated myself into the Korean university debate community, judged and helped organize debates, and made some good debate friends. And of course, I made friends at home and work and had fun going out on the town, playing Scrabble, and everything in between. These things had little to do with Korea, which in this respect was just the backdrop.

Korea did throw some obstacles in my way (what an inconsiderate backdrop!), such as preventing me from biking by producing such short people and therefore such small bikes. The clearest difficulty Korea presented, though, was the inaccessibility of the gay community. In Vancouver, I had many out gay and lesbian friends, played in a gay volleyball league, went to gay film festivals and theatre, socialized at gay bars and clubs, and generally had a gay old time. In Seoul, while the huge population ensures a large number of gay people, the activity is much less open and hard to find outside places like Homo Hill (the concentration of gay bars in the foreign neighbourhood of Seoul, Itaewon), and while I was able to meet gay friends, they were scattered throughout Seoul and I only saw them occasionally.

I wrote at one point that on many weekends, I had to choose between volleyball on Sunday and going out on Saturday nights. I suspect that had I not also developed my involvement in volleyball and debate, I could have invested more time in the gay community and had a very different experience. Ça va, I suppose.

What about my recent life? February has been characteristically busy. I wrote about my Jeju trip over Lunar New Year; since then I volunteered for two weekends at the Asian Debate Institute, training and judging and reconnecting with my debate buddies. As you can imagine, this filled my weekend days with debate and nights with crazy, fun antics. This week I have been wrapping up my finances here, shipping a box of my belongings home, training my replacement, packing my apartment and giving away most of it, and trying to find time to spend with friends I may not see again.

I have also been planning for the next few months, which has made me quite excited to be returning home. In March I will be attending the Canadian National Debate Seminar in Hay River, NWT--a week in the frozen North with good friends and high school debaters! I will also be competing in two volleyball tournaments on back to back weekends in Irvine, CA and Portland, OR. In between, I have scheduled visits to reconnect with two Stateside friends. Though I'm nominally moving back to Vancouver, I feel like I won't really be there until midway through April! I also have two summer jobs: a part-time contract developing a debate program for the International Debate Education Association (IDEA) and a Program Manager gig at Shad Valley Queens in Kingston, both of which I anticipate excitedly.

My long term plans are less certain though no less exciting. I may return to Asia to take on the long-awaited IDEA job, but I may forgo that and accelerate my education, going back to school to get an Education degree. Either way I am sure to have an adventure.

I may not, however, be blogging about the next adventure. I have very much enjoyed this yearlong experiment in sharing my life with the world (read: my family), and I feel like I have something tangible to look back on; however, it is time for a break from blogging, so I will take advantage of the natural end point provided by leaving Korea. I'll be seeing most of my readers much more often, so I hope to be able to share my life through more traditional storytelling means.

In retrospect, I suppose after all that Korea has taught me about myself. I know that I can take on the challenge of living in a new culture with different language, customs, food and values, and make an enjoyable life for myself there. I know that I love teaching and will be pursuing that profession in the medium term. I know that I will take certain things with me--volleyball and debate, for example--no matter where I live.

And with those thoughts, From Korea With Love comes to an end. Thanks to my loyal readers and commenters: I'm happy that you still reach out to me from across the pond, and I'm coming home soon!


  1. For me Stephen your blog made it bearable for you to be so far away. And to live vicariously through your adventures and feel that you weren't so far away. I will miss reading your thoughts, ideas and hearing your stories but look forward to them in person.
    Love mom xoxo

  2. Sorry to hear that this blog is over. Well looking forward to seeing you again and talking about more of your adventures and being away in a different country will make you change your culture as well.