Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Leaving Korea

I think my husband has probably been trying to get me to leave Korea since we met-- sixteen years ago. I love my husband (we've been married eleven years), but I fell in love with Korea first. Crazy, beautiful, passionate, sometimes even infuriating, Korea. Korea with its amazing music (traditional and pop), with its bathhouses, traditional markets, hiking trails, and thousands of islands. Korea with its pollution and too hot summers and too cold winters and litter problem. Finally my husband made an ultimatum.

Leave Korea, or we're going to get divorced.
We can't live like this, you in Korea, me somewhere else.

I admit, I understand him. I can't be angry at him about this ultimatum. I'm the woman who got married to a man but wouldn't stop hanging around the one I hadn't married (obviously in this metaphor Korea is "the other man," but you can't marry a country, can you?-- or maybe that's what naturalization is). I don't even really want to work in Korea. I want a lovely tenure track job in an area I like in the US, maybe Canada, maybe Australia, New Zealand, even somewhere in Europe. Somewhere where professor means something about research and quality of teaching, not so much about status and power (I did not enjoy being within Korean academia, although working at a better school with a more open attitude towards non-Korean professors should be much better). I've always wanted most to work in a SLAC (small liberal arts college), but I'd happily take a job in a R1 (research 1, the big schools like UCLA), or in a community college (yes, I would have to teach many classes, but you know what, I like teaching, and there would be less pressure to publish) or really any place that was honorably providing non-profit education for young minds (or old minds, I don't care). However, my preference for working somewhere other than Korea does not change my preference for living in Korea.

In my husband's defense, there is nothing for him to do in Korea. My life is rich and interwoven with friends of ten, fifteen, twenty years. I ride my bike, I do hapkido, I have research to do, papers to write, students to teach. My husband isn't big on the culture, and already knows two languages beyond his native Amdo Tibetan. He learned some Korean-- he can order food, ask for directions and understand some of the answer, phonetically read things-- he has survival Korean. But he's not going to settle down and make a bunch of friends -- he's not actually happy here. He can't get a work visa, and if he did, it would probably be for work that is not at all fun, challenging, or even tolerable. It would be low-paid and he would not get much respect. Koreans aren't even particularly interested in "other Asians" (if he was a traditional performer from elsewhere, he might get more music opportunities).

So, in December last year (2015) I agreed. I'd leave Korea. I'd leave by the start of the fall (2016), and if I didn't have a job to leave to, I'd just be unemployed. I wouldn't stay in Korea, where (since leaving my job at HUFS) I am happy -every day-. Let me say that again, I am happy -every freaking day-. I wake up happy, I go to sleep happy, I eat food happily. I am HAPPY. The only bad thing in my life right now is that my husband isn't here in Korea with me. I might be, barring the absent husband, the happiest I have ever been in my life (full disclosure: I have also had the worst time in my life in Korea). So, I promised I'd leave Korea. I don't mean forever not coming back here. But leaving with the understanding that I'd at most spend summers in Korea. Maybe I'd be able to have a semester here in a few years. The understanding that I'd be visiting Korea, not living here. That I'd come on research trips, do a little fieldwork and then go "home."

Korea is my home, says my heart. Korea has been my home since I first came here, it only took me one year to realize this (I inhaled in 1997 and realized I was home, I still remember that moment that I knew Korea was where I wanted to spend the rest of my life.) There are so many things about my happiness in Korea right now that can't leave Korea with me. The biking is phenomenally good-- I ride my bike on well maintained paths that start 1 mile from my house. I am going to the best Hapkido place I've been to in years. He's fabulous, just the instructor I need. I live right on top of one of my research sites and just run into friends on the street (and end up carrying their heavy boxes of crap if we're talking about yesterday when I ran into a neighbor I've known since 2005). My house is small, but cozy. I live next to a nice bathhouse, a giant traditional market, the subway, and lots of buses. My monthly costs are crazy low (I'll go from renting here for 350,000 per month -- think 350 bucks-- to maybe even 2,000 Canadian collars).

I got a job. It's a one year postdoctoral research fellowship + a two semester part-time teaching fellowship at University of British Columbia. I'm packing, my house is a mess. But I can't pack Korea into the boxes. And it's breaking my heart.

Some recent photos by my awesome cyclist friend Leo Rhee that do not reflect the nearly 15 years I've lived here out of the past 20:


Feriyal Aslam said...

Thanks for sharing gives me a good catching up on your Korean episode :) all the best for the next one ! Ur relationship to Korea seems similar to my sentiments for Islamabad (pakistan)

CedarBough said...

thanks for reading, sweetie. <3

Happy Family said...

My dear, I can hear your heart breaking as I read. And I get all of it. But I know you'll find adventure and friends and goodness elsewhere and I can't wait to read the next chapter or your life. So much love to you!

Mary Wondra said...

(tears in eyes, heart breaking, full of selfish joy that you will be closer) So absolutely perfectly written. I celebrate you and your life.

CedarBough said...

Yes, we can see each other soon^^

CedarBough said...

And I to you!

Palang Thai said...

Hi Cedarbough,

(I always thought SLAC was "Stanford Linear Accelerator Collider", not "Small Liberal Arts College!")

Our family has similar "do we belong in Asia or elsewhere?" questions. For Chom and me it's driven by a sense that we can be so much more useful here in Asia where the big decisions about power sector are still being made. With kids it gets even worse I think.

When do you actually leave Korea? We've got a 10 hour layover in Incheon starting early morning 9 August on our journey back to Lopez.

CedarBough said...

I leave on 8/13, so still here on the 9th and it's the day after I've shipped my stuff, so not a bad day to hang around, if you want.

SLAC has always meant small liberal arts college-- google it and i guarantee you'll see what I mean.

I'm sure it would be much harder with other voices and needs in the mix, it's tough just with K and I.

email if you want to hang on the 9th.