I’m sitting in a beautifully decorated kitchen in a hostel in Yeosu, South Korea, sipping on tea and listening to the newest K-Pop in the background. It feels like I could be in a K-drama myself. Plot lines spin outward as I journey toward a better understanding of myself and others–and I find myself in love again.
I have returned to the place that I used to be. A place I once explored in my early 20s, a place of seas and mountains and noisy markets and giggling schoolgirls and a house by the sea. It is much changed. The Yeosu I knew from 2006 has turned into a Yeosu that hosted the World Expo in 2012. Where once I felt like we were the edge of Korea–far from the bustle of a city like Seoul–now there is a KTX bullet train that takes us from Seoul right into the heart of the city in under three hours. Where once there were only love motels or expensive resort hotels for travelers, now there are multiple hostels for backpackers like me. Where once I had to decipher each sign with my newly learned Korean and was grateful for the occasional sign in two languages, I see English everywhere. Google Maps now actually tells me which buses I can take to which parts of the city, while Yeosu maybe wasn’t even mapped before. My home by the sea has been converted into a successful seafood restaurant, thanks to the efforts of my homestay mom. And my homestay sister, my closest ally-turned-friend during my time in Yeosu, who I met when she was in her first year of high school, is now in her mid-20s and working (too hard) in Seoul. She’s now older than I was when I taught here in 2006-2007, which she was shocked to realize when we met up last Christmas.
Watching the Korean countryside fly by on the KTX from Seoul to Yeosu.
When we arrived in Korea late last week and took the train into Seoul, Keyes told me they felt my air change–the feeling and emotion around me turning into a peace they said they’d not felt before. I felt it, too. Standing on the train, crossing from Incheon to Seoul, watching the mountains and seas come into view, I felt a shard in my heart give way, some blockage shift, this homecoming. This isn’t my place, and yet it is. In any crowd, it’s obvious I’m a foreigner. I don’t belong–and yet I do.
A lot of people fall in love in their early 20s. Maybe they have their first serious relationship, their first real heartbreak with someone that they saw a future with. All of those highs and lows of a caliber not experienced before–all while trying to figure out who you are in this great big mess of a world.
Coming back to Yeosu, I realize that I fell in love then, too. I loved this place in a way that words can’t express, and I had life-altering experiences that have affected all the days that have followed. I learned and laughed and grew and cried and learned how to hold on and how to let go. In this return, I’m reminded of that old flame, and the heartbreak of leaving, and the love that continues after saying goodbye.
So, Korea, I’m back. I don’t know what it means or for how long, but I’m glad to be here. Let’s grab a cup of coffee at one of the many new cafes trending across your cities and catch up. Let’s sing some of our old songs in your noraebangs (singing rooms) and pour each other soju or makkeolli and eat and drink to who we are and all we’ve become. There’s a lot that’s happened in the five years since I saw you last and a lot that’s changed for both of us. Maybe we can be friends again, or maybe there’s still a spark there that hints at something more. But in this moment, I’m just going to enjoy being with you.
So, welcome to Korea, friends. There’s a lot to catch up with you, including a trip to the Grand Canyon, a beautiful excursion to Vargas Plateau in California, and ruminations on gender and place and space. But for now, we’re headed to visit my homestay mom so I can share her delicious cooking with Keyes. Be well, and sending love and dreams of delicious Korean food your way.