[Observer]So long, for nowAnd just like that, six-and-a-half years have passed, and it’s time to go home. My wife and I came to Korea in 2001, expecting to be here for three years. Instead, we have had perhaps the most satisfying jobs of our careers. And beyond that, we just liked living in Korea. So we kept delaying going home.
But now it has happened. The last of the farewell meals and partings with friends are over. The movers have packed up everything in our lovely apartment, including the two small stone haetae that we are taking home to guard our house in a woods in Maryland. Our goods are on the high seas now, and so are we, taking the long way home by Pacific freighter.
“What will you miss most about Korea?” friends asked.
That’s easy ― our friends. We have left other countries ― Japan, Russia, Germany, England ― after varying periods of residence, and it is always the friends that we miss most. But it seems that we have more friends here. Is that because we stayed here the longest, or is it something about the quality of Korean friendships?
Certainly Koreans are among the most helpful and generous people I have ever met. Pause on a sidewalk, and invariably a Korean will come to your rescue. Once in Gyeongju, I paused in front of a restaurant, reading the sign. The owner hustled out to invite me in, but I was looking for a different restaurant. She insisted on walking me three blocks down the street to make sure I found the competitor.
On the front page, you see pictures of legislators trading punches or pulling hair, or of massed demonstrators confronting massed police. But the Koreans we met in daily life are sweet-natured, particularly many men. (A middle-aged Korean woman friend agrees, but only about young men. “They’re not sweet when they grow up,” she says. The more reason, then, to appreciate Korean men when they are young.)
As for generosity ― just try to pick up a restaurant bill. Since I am nearly always the oldest, I, according to Korean custom, should pay. But Koreans would rather abandon their Confucian deference to age than allow me to buy a meal. There are subterfuges that may occasionally succeed ― pretending to head to the restroom, for instance, and then circling around to the front counter. As likely as not, however, your intended guest will find a way to get there first.
You won’t miss the traffic, my friends say.
No, but that’s because we mostly managed to miss it while living here. We had no car. Think of the freedom! No worries about erratic Yakult-toting ladies on scooters, daredevil motorcyclists lurching off the sidewalk and hurtling through the stoplights, streets blocked by democracy-loving mobs. No worries about parking. No expenses for gasoline, insurance or automobile maintenance.
I will miss living independent of an automobile. It was only possible because of Seoul’s excellent public transportation. The subway does not reach Pyeongchang-dong, where we lived, so we used mostly buses and taxis, which are, by world standards, cheap and abundant.
Every year the metropolitan government holds a “town hall” meeting, and every year expats gripe about Seoul cabbies. And every year I despair at the dogged provincialism of expats here. Seoul cabbies are rude, they say? Have none of these expats been to Paris, or Prague, or New York? Offhand, I can think of only two lots of cabbies who are as courteous and knowledgeable as Seoul’s ― in London and anywhere in Japan. And in those places, the cost of a cab ride means a delay in financing your children’s orthodontia. In Seoul, you can ride from Pyeongchang-dong in the foothills of the northern national park to the Seoul Arts Center south of the Han River for about $15. In most of the world’s capitals, that kind of money will move you a couple of kilometers. And I will miss the silhouette of the mountains at twilight. Is any other city encircled ― penetrated, even ― by rugged mountains like Seoul’s? In Pyeongchang-dong we lived with Bukhan mountain on one side of the apartment and Bugak, the mountain behind the Blue House, on the other.
My wife and I made a point of seeing as much of Korea as we could, from Mount Kumgang in the North to Jeju Island. My wife got deep into beautiful rural areas through trips arranged by Hello Friends, a service of the American Women’s Club. The group takes English speakers to teach simple English lessons to Korean children, followed by lunch and sightseeing. It’s a good way for expats here to see Korea ― and you don’t have to be an American... or a woman.
I will miss the “service economy.” Korea still has one; only economists, with their contrived and phantasmagorical definitions, call the United States a “service economy.” In Korea, the dry cleaner makes house calls. If the refrigerator springs a leak (mind you, only in Korea have I had a refrigerator that leaked), someone will come to fix it. Someone will come to make your television or Internet work properly, and when the problem turns out to be that the fool thing wasn’t plugged in, they won’t sneer condescendingly at you. Or charge for the visit.
Not only is Korea a no-tipping society, it is also the only place I know where merchants tip customers ― throwing in extras as “service” (pronounced “saw-BEECE”). When we offered a farewell bouquet of flowers to our neighborhood grocer on our last day in Pyeongchang-dong, he insisted on giving us a carton of little vitamin drinks, “service.” We set them out for the moving men, and I guess they all got taken.
I will miss my church. I won’t name the church or denomination, because my purpose is not to preach to anyone. But think of ourselves as birds. At home we lived in a particular, specialized habitat; most everyone living nearby were of one kind, whether professional people or students or country folk or urban hipsters. An international church is more like a waterhole, where all sorts of wildlife come to drink.
In our congregation, at least a dozen nationalities were represented, Koreans and others, and occupationally we ranged from itinerant youngsters teaching English to finance a backpack year after college to Nigerian traders, Filipino factory workers, diplomats and millionaire businessmen. If you really want to meet all types of people, don’t waste your time in a bar ― go to church.
Other things I will miss: strangely worded T-shirts (“Lust for Shade”), and the names of apartment developments (“Iwant” and “The Odium” ― or was it “Odeum”?) Flower bouquets swaddled in layers of tulle (“service”). Little girls in shocking-pink shirts, pants, sneakers, backpacks, caps, mounted on shocking-pink bicycles or rollerblades. (Actually, we do have little girls in America, thank heaven, and their favorite color is shocking pink, too.)
Of course, we can never leave Korea. Korea goes with us in our hearts. We will be back in a couple of years to visit our friends. Maybe between now and then, this newspaper will take a couple more of my columns.
So this is not “goodbye,” but “so long for a while.”
*The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Harold Piper