I recently returned from a vacation that took me to Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea. It was my first time landing in Malaysia and Singapore but not South Korea. I had been an English teacher in Korea almost 20 years ago. When I was there, I wrote a bi-weekly column for a Nova Scotia newspaper about my experiences. I’m doing that again except this time, the columns are for my own blog.
Part III of Singapore ‘16
While planning our trip, my husband Jason and I tried to figure out how to get to South Korea from Singapore. Flights from Changi Airport were expensive. Flights from Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) were cheap. We decided the best way to get to Korea was to flying back to KLIA from Singapore and then go on from there. So that’s what we did.
South Korea was my home for six months in 1997. I went after graduating from journalism school in Toronto and not being able to find a job as a reporter. (I had a job at The Gap.) As well, the guy I had been dating broke up with me and broke my heart and I decided the best way to mend it was to go far, far away. Where I knew no one and no one knew me.
I spent a lot of time on my own my first two months as an English teacher in Korea. I couldn’t speak or read Korean. I was illiterate and didn’t even understand street signs. However, my experiences forced me to grow up. Now, almost 20 years later, I was going back to Taejon, where I had once taught.
Jason and I landed at KLIA, an airport well-known to us by now. We planned our incoming and outgoing flights with many hours in between in case anything happened. Jason whiled away the eight hours by reading and I went from shop to shop trying to spend all our Malaysian ringgit, currency we wouldn’t be needing anymore. (I bought postcards, a Singaporean cookbook, tea and cookies. We still have a few ringgit left.)
Finally, it was check in time for our overnight flight to Korea on Vietnam Airlines. We went to the counter where the agents scared us by telling us we may be turned away at customs in Korea if we didn’t have a return trip booked. We had tickets home — albeit on a different airline — and when we showed them our itinerary, they checked us in and we were good to go.
Our first flight landed in Ho Chi Minh City at night. The airplane taxied past Air Force One on the apron. Turns out U.S. President Barack Obama was in Vietnam. But he wasn’t hanging out in the terminal, where we parked ourselves amidst noisy French tourists. For some reason, they had to congregate right by us even though there were rows of empty seats a couple of steps away. They chitter-chatted loudly, interrupting my thoughts and sleep, until their plane to Paris left an hour before our connecting flight.
Our second flight to Incheon International Airport was late leaving but that was fine. We didn’t have another plane to catch, only a train, and they ran numerous times a day. We were going to Taejon (also known as Daejeon) first, where I had lived for most of my time in South Korea. In my head Taejon, a city 140 km south of Seoul, hadn’t changed at all. But of course I knew it would be different. How different, I wondered.
After an almost seven-hour flight, we had outrun the heat and arrived in a cooler Incheon at 6:30 a.m. among what seemed to be a billion Rotarians from all over the world. (There was a Rotary International Convention going on in Seoul the last week of May.) Jason and I got our bags (both of them) and went downstairs to the Korea Train Express (KTX) station. We had missed the first train to Taejon but another one was coming along at 9 a.m.
I don’t think there was an express train to Taejon when I lived there. I took the bus everywhere then. But the train is certainly a faster way to travel – speeding up to 300 km an hour at some points. I was excited to go to Taejon. Excited to be back in a place I once knew as home. But entering the outskirts of Taejon, nothing looked familiar. Sky high apartment buildings, new to me, sprouted out of what used to be rural rice fields. I didn’t know where I was.
At the train station, Jason and I stowed our backpacks in a locker and found a tourist information booth. I wanted to find out just exactly we were. I don’t remember this station in 1997 and I thought if I could figure out where in the city we were, I could get us to my old neighbourhood.
When I told the tourist information officer where I wanted to go, she had no idea what I was talking about. Taejon had grown, grown, grown and was huge. There were many new communities, too many to know. I did remember that I had lived near a large department store, Say, and asked where it was. She pointed it out on a map.
Jason and I went outside into the sunny afternoon and I was pulled left by an invisible force. I knew we had to go left. Checking the map, that was the way we were supposed to go. We walked and walked. Walked some more. Walked by Say and the park where I had played with the toddlers enrolled in my school. Jason and I walked by markets and shops that I must have visited a long time ago. Except it didn’t seem like a long time ago.
As I’ve said before, my experiences in Korea made me grow up. Yet being back in Taejon I felt like I was the same person. I didn’t feel any older or wiser or mature. How could twenty years have passed? They had. The grey in my hair told me I was no longer a young adult. The streets that had multiplied in Taejon said it wasn’t the same place. Then we got to a place that hadn’t changed at all: the river.
I stood on the bridge and looked down at the water. It still moved in the same direction. It still rippled when the wind hit it. It still offered herons a place to fish. People still walked along the pathway beside the Geum River. I used to run alongside it. I used to mull over what I was going to do next with my life. I was lonely and mourning a Toronto boyfriend when I was here the last time. I had no clue what I was going to do next. I had been lost. Now here I was, with my husband, no longer wandering and wondering. I knew my future was secure. This river was a conduit to a different time. Moments of the past and the present and the future chained together.
We walked on and found my old neighbourhood but couldn’t find my Taejon home or where I had worked, Kwak’s English Country School. We had already been walking for over four hours and had to turn around. A former student of mine, Suzan, was meeting us at our hotel room and Jason and I had to boot it back to the station to pick up our bags before we checked in.
We were sunburned and our feet hurt by the time we made it to our room. Tired too. Suzan came by at 6 p.m. and took us out for a drink. She was 13 when I last saw her. Now she was over 30. She had been one of my favourite students because she was spunky and said what was on her mind. We had stayed in touch via letters, e-mail and Facebook through the years.
Over grapefruit Soju (a distilled rice drink), I reminded Suzan that she once said she was never going to get married. She laughed and told me her parents were trying hard to match her up. Maybe if she visited Canada we could find her someone? Suzan’s friend Sun-Mi joined our little party and suggested we go to a traditional Korean restaurant in a village about 30 minutes away. Jason and I had been sleepy but the conversation (and drinks) gave us a boost of energy and we said sure to the offer. I’m glad we did.
The place was truly magical. The sun was setting behind some large pottery kimchi jars (jars used to make a fermented spicy cabbage dish) and the air glowed blue behind them, profiling the mountains in the distance. I had seen this before. Not this exact scene but this setting. It was a perfect Korea moment. One made richer by the presence of old friends and new memories.