A year ago today I was sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor in my Seoul apartment at 2 a.m. surrounded by bags overflowing with trash, piles of wrinkled clothing and a slew of toiletries. I had a 7 a.m. flight to catch, but I wasn’t even remotely packed. My brand new Osprey backpack sat on my bare mattress, still wrapped in plastic. I wasn’t just going on vacation, I was headed to Europe for three months—and leaving Korea forever.
My roommate wobbled in from a fun night out, took in the scene of chaos in front of her and asked if I needed any help. I was intensely focused on transferring a bottle of Advil into a travel pill box and told her I was fine.
“Girl, you need my help,” she said laughing, and proceeded to organize all of my clothing into boxes for the next two hours. (I’m convinced that without her I would still be sitting on that floor wondering what the hell to do next. )
Despite having nearly two weeks to pack up my life and say goodbye to the country I called my home for three years, I had left it all to the 24 hours before my departure. Instead I had spent that time meeting up with friends, enjoying the wonderful spring weather and gorging myself on as much Korean barbecue as I could manage. Because even though I had spent the last nine months wanting nothing more than to peace out, when it came down to it, I was terrified of having to think about what leaving actually meant.
God I miss the food
Leaving Korea meant parting ways with some of the best people I had ever met and trading in the expat lifestyle of constant adventure and freedom for a standard 9-5 job and a slew of responsibilities. It meant starting from scratch and trying to pick up where I left off, even though everyone else I knew back home had moved on.
I wasn’t ready to think about it. So instead I visited ancient ruins in Italy, drank sangria in Barcelona, and had midnight picnics under the Eiffel Tower in Paris. When I returned home, I struggled with repatriation, unemployment and a life crisis of sorts. Now gainfully employed and finally able to catch my breath, a year later I feel like I fully understand what it means to say goodbye to a place I both passionately loved and hated at times.
I definitely miss the bright lights and overwhelming signage
I was recently Skyping with one of my closest friends, who I met about three weeks after moving to Korea, and we talked at length about how much we were missing the city. It seemed nostalgia was hitting us both at the same time. We agreed that few other countries we had visited or lived in had a cohesive expat community quite like Korea.
Living there definitely didn’t feel like the real world—more like somewhere between college and the real world. We chatted about how we were both trying to grapple with life post Korea. Not that it’s bad in any sense—not even close—but it’s definitely not as exciting. (On the other hand, living Stateside means not being constantly frustrated by a language barrier and weird cultural differences, or feeling like I am missing out on important family events). But mostly we chatted about the things we loved and missed that were unique to Korea. It was like two friends reminiscing about that one unforgettable summer in high school.
With the help of my roommate I made it to the airport on time and mostly without incident. As I buckled my seatbelt and waited for our plane to make its way down the runway, I truly felt like I was leaving Korea for good. That feeling of finality wouldn’t return for months, but in that moment, it was very real. I felt at peace, like everything over the course of the last three wonderful, frustrating and adventurous years had unfolded just as it was meant to.
As I settled in and prepared for a long journey to Rome, I reflected on the immense amount of kindness the country had shown me in the last 24 chaotic hours: the middle-aged owner of my favorite neighborhood corner store who, after hearing I was leaving, offered me a free cookie and came around from the counter to give me a big hug, saying “you are best customer.” (He was like my own personal sommelier for crappy Korean wine for the two years I frequented his shop).
Or the airport worker who had insisted on driving me to the airport entrance just hours before when, in search of the FedEx building, I mistakenly ended up lost in some out-of-the-way cargo area.
And especially the sweet farewell note from my boss and the well wishes from several co-workers who told me they were sad to see me go.
In that moment, the bitterness I had carried with me for months and the eagerness I had felt in leaving faded, then disappeared like the streaks of white that trailed behind our airplane in the sky.