For two years I lived in Korea, teaching English was my main pursuit, but in my free time I worked to learn the language, culture and traditions. Living somewhere as an expat though creates some limitations. You don't have an immediate family to spend weekends away with, nor are the holidays quite the same. Chuseok, one of the largest holidays in Korea, is often spent with family, a time to spend together while remembering those who came before you. As the holiday is three days long and is often coupled with a weekend, foreigners take this opportunity to travel. During both of my first two Chuseok holiday's I took the opportunity to jump across the sea to Japan. Not having a family to spend this time with it seemed like the most logical alternative. This year though things would be a bit different, my friend Pete (a Korean/American adoptee) would be visiting. Knowing that most everything shuts down during the holiday I planned a few simple days for us, traditional village, hiking and temple exploration. I dreamed of being able to show him a real Chuseok but couldn't imagine how this would be possible, but remember: anything is possible.
Wednesday evening as I packed up my apartment I sent a casual text to my former principal in Buksam. I mentioned that I'd be in town over the next few days, hoping we could meet, but understood if he was busy due to the holiday. I had to read his response a few times to make sure I got it right, and I'm sure I had a big smile plastered to my face as I read.
"As soon as you get to Gumi, touch my phone..invite you to my home."
There was definitely a small part of me that had been hoping for this invite, but it was an even smaller, somewhat minuet part that actually expected it. I explained that I had a friend visiting, but this was no problem, we were both invited to his home to celebrate the holiday with him and his family. I was so happy for both myself, being able to spend time with my principal, a man I already thought of as a second father, but also for my friend who would be able to experience the real Korea, during his first visit to the country since leaving at 3 months old.
We rose early, lugging my 100 pounds of luggage (my life) to the Andong bus terminal in order to catch a bus to Gumi, where I'd temporarily move in to my friend Joonwoo's house. After carting everything into my new home it was a quick shower and change of clothes before being picked up by my principal, as promised. He explained that there were 24 family members at his home waiting, my excitement as well as hesitation grew quickly. Oddly enough I had no hesitation about the language barrier, I was ready to try and play translator for Pete, but also knew there would be at least a few family members with a solid grasp of English (my principal included). When we arrived my principal walked us around introducing us to all the family members, explaining who we were and why we were there. Everyone welcomed us with smiles and shy "Hello's", making the Korean introductions Pete had been practicing mildly unnecessary.
One of my favorite interactions of the day came from my principals 87 year old mother, upon watching my friend Pete eat and drink anything that was placed in front of him. She continually repeated how thankful she was that he grew well, and ate well. Similar to other cultures a good appetite is a sure sign of a healthy and happy life. We sat at what appeared to be the 'men's table' as the women slaved away in the kitchen and children and grandchildren roamed the house. I couldn't help but wonder, had I actually been part of this family (married in for example) where I'd belong. Would the women accept me (as a foreigner) into the kitchen, or would I still be welcome with my principal and his brothers? I soon realized why we sat with the guys, both of my principals older brothers speak phenomenal English. This was actually the second time seeing them, as I had attended my principal's daughters wedding three years ago; the brothers were surprised that I had remembered their singing that day. The eldest is now retired, but previously worked with the Samsung Lion's baseball team, while the second is currently living in Uganda working on agricultural initiatives there. I knew my principal was a smart, driver, outgoing man and now it was all making sense, his entire family was full of amazing people.
After a delicious lunch my principal invited us upstairs to show us some pictures. It started with photo's of his recent trip to 독도 (Dokdo, the controversial island off the East coast which Japan is still trying to lay claims to) the reason for which I'm still trying to understand. He explained how representatives from each province went, but I couldn't grasp why he was invited (simple assumption is he's a badass). Following these were pictures of him ranging from infant to strapping young man, there were family portraits, old black and whites and various others interwoven. His younger daughter (not far from my age) came to talk to us for a bit, but her extreme shyness in speaking English limited the exchange. It was thanks to her though that I learned these pictures were from his mothers recently published autobiography, yet more proof raising the cool factor of this family.
Finished with photos we returned to our seats out front where entertainment was provided in the form of adorable young boys, nephews or grandkids depending which reference point you used, these kids were adorable. The day was spent idly, as holidays should be, but I was perfectly content with how the events were unfolding, I only hoped Pete (my guest) felt the same way. Before family members began departing everyone was called together for a family photo, including Pete and myself. The gesture of including us as part of the family, to this extent, was the cherry on top of an already extraordinary day. As relatives left we parted with "See you next time" promises, and I genuinely believe in and look forward to the time that will happen. Although I have no blood ties to this family, and I stand out with my obnoxiously white skin and western face, I felt right at home, not a moment of awkward or unwelcome feelings all day.
Thinking back to the first day I met 지경진 (my principal, Mr. Ji), a cold winter day in March of 2012, determined to make a good first impression, I'm floored by where our relationship has led. The two years I spent teaching under his watch at Buksam High School were filled with memories, laughter, occasional challenges and even some tears. Saying goodbye in 2014 I worried that all of this would end, but now a year and a half later, I've realized that this is a friendship with no end. Despite my back and forth adventures to and from his country, every time I return I'm welcomed back and encouraged to stay. Creating a life halfway around the world from where you're first one started is utterly amazing but equally just as challenging. No matter what hemisphere I'm in I have those I'm missing in the other, but to have that amount of love on two sides of the world is a feeling words cannot express.
Where to start. After living in this country for three years I have memories, experiences and stories galore. I'll now always be a bit partial to the Land of the Morning Calm. Filled with delicious foods, beautiful nature and friendly people, I'm always happy to return.