I sat on top of my suitcase and squeezed the zipper shut. As soon as I got it closed a let out a sign of finality. That was it. After a week of half-hearted and scattered packing attempts, I was done. My life in Korea was officially wrapped up, packed up and shipped off. In two hours my boss was picking me up and my replacement was about to take over this little square of space I had called home for the last year.
No more late night runs to the marts on the corner, no more charming run-ins with elderly Korean ladies, no more barbecues, and no more Kimchi.
As someone who is self-admittedly dramatic, existentially anguished and perpetually looking for meaning, life lessons and metaphors in the most mundane of things I found myself surprised. Moving to Korea was one of the most pivotal moments in my life, I was shaking and scared and excited. I felt empowered. Stepping on the plane to Seoul felt like I had taken the book of my life off the shelf scribbled my own empowering ending and then slammed it shut. I was about to write a new story.
But leaving Korea felt more like…leaving Korea.
No metaphors, no existential higher meaning, no universe. Just getting on a plane.
I went to my goodbye party which was a small dinner and drinks gathering and the last place on my Korean bucket list. A little bar on the corner that resembled something in between a hobbit hole and a Korean interpretation of a tiki dive bar. It was perfect. I sipped Makeoli and snacked on Pajeon and looked around at all my friends who had made this year so special. One friend looked over at me and excitedly asked, “How are you feeling?”
I think I surprised both of us when I responded, “I don’t really feel anything.”
Now, I am a crier. I am not ashamed of the tears that flow out of my eyes from inspiring contact lens commercials or someone’s well-written story of empowerment. But when it was time to say goodbye I hardly shed a tear.
My friends all seemed wrapped up with what was going on with them,and fair enough, they have their own lives and concerns and things to deal with. Everyone just seemed distracted and it made leaving a little easier.
Fast-forward to when my boss picked me up to leave my apartment. I waited to be washed over with emotion, to feel a pang in my heart when I closed the door for the last time behind me. It didn’t happen.
Everything felt normal, mundane, right.
I almost teared up when the train pulled away from my generous boss waving to me from the platform. Then became so PISSED OFF at all the stupid, monotonous, beige, buildings. Why don’t Koreans want buildings in any other shapes and sizes? I forgot I was sad and before I knew it I was engaged with the all-too-predictable small talk about 1) Where I was from 2) Am I a teacher and 3) How long was I in Korea for with the gentleman next to me. He showed me a picture of his daughter and then told me it was his wife. Then laughed at me for believing him.
By the time I got to the airport I was just confused.
My bags were heavy, the terminal was big, the lines were long and I had to pay $200 dollars to check my banjo. My flight was delayed and by the time we took off I forgot I was sad, forgot I was leaving behind a life I had built and forgot I had said goodbye to 100 Korean children whose memories I will cherish.
What I remembered was I was tired, hungry and really wishing I had that $200.
Arriving in Alaska
By the time I got back to Alaska, I was dead meat. Hours and transfers and frustrations had passed. I had crossed countries and states and time zones and datelines. A woman refused to watch my SUPER HEAVY carry on while I grabbed a cup of coffee and I panicked when the lady at the counter spoke to me in English. I fumbled around with my American money and I was just. So. Tired.
I was ready to be done.
I was confused about this unemotional reaction to such a big transition. Maybe I was really ready to go, maybe I knew that this was the right decision, maybe saying goodbye to my people and my life has just become a part of my routine after move… after move…after move…after move. Maybe I was just bored of Korea.
On the small plane from Anchorage to Fairbanks, Alaska opened its loving arms to me. I watched the sky turn from black to on fire as the sun rose. Slowly transforming from orange, to yellow to purple to pink. All I could see in every direction was vast expanses of land with rivers dancing through it. Untouched and wild. Majestic and massive mountains jutted ruggedly up out of the ground and into the sky. The snow sprinkled the tops of them painting them a peaceful white. I scrambled for my camera only to find my phone was dead, so I took a breath and I drank it in. I looked around and questioned why people weren’t freaking out over this. This plane ride was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. And most people on the plane just looked bored. As the sky eventually shifted from pink to blue we soared past Denali, so close I could almost reach out and touch it, I felt peace.
I had spent a year searching and wondering, naming all the places I had lived. Wondering how many more places I needed to go before I could confidently say the one word that had been alluding me out loud. I closed my eyes to hide the fact that the tears I had been waiting for had finally come. Not when I left my adopted home but when I arrived at the place I never thought I would use this label for again. In this moment I knew I had made the right decision about when to leave and where to go. Although it isn’t permanent, I know Fairbanks will always be here for me when I need to recharge or re-plan. I felt like the mountains were hugging me and welcoming me back. Then I whispered word I have so relentlessly looking for the right use of… HOME.