About a year ago, on January 24th, 2022, I landed in Incheon Airport on a one-way flight from Los Angeles. I quietly shuffled out the plane and immediately felt the crisp, 4:00 am winter chill. This is it, I thought, my new home: Seoul, South Korea.
Nearly three years prior, right before Covid, I left Seoul for Europe to continue my year-long study fellowship (which got canceled, for obvious reasons). I promised—longed for—myself to be back for longer. Maybe after the fellowship, before or after PhD, before I settle down, or whenever I might have a free year or two. In 2021, however, things fell apart: after getting rejected from PhD programs, I spiraled into depression (a much longer post is forthcoming). Clueless and lost, I wanted an escape or a catalyst out of my mental sluggishness and quarter-life purgatory.
Living with my dad and step-mom certainly didn’t help. Golfing everyday at a country club did. Nonetheless, I wanted out. Teaching at a 학원 (hakwon or academy) in Korea afforded the opportunity. Interview, mock Zoom lecture, offer letter, signed contract, and—boom—I’m on a plane six weeks later.
At the time, military staff at the airport would commandeer passengers’ smartphones and install a GPS tracker. It was one way for the Korean government to ensure incoming residents and visitors would not break quarantine. (Remember quarantine?)
PCR tests in Korea are invasive as hell. A foot long swab goes more than 60% up the nostrils. Is the virus in my brain or something?
Seoul is known for fast service, but the speed at which I found, saw, and signed a housing contract was a bit insane. The broker showed four listings; I liked two but only one was within my budget; I sent the initial deposit and received my Korean address—something I desperately needed to get a phone number and finalize my F-4 visa.
Work was work. Training wasn’t too difficult; the hakwon has their curriculum in place, and one just has to follow it. My first month was done over Zoom. Kids looked bored as hell. I saw my nephew in their faces when I stayed with my sister during covid. Little children starved for peer-to-peer and face-to-face interaction and play. Covid fucking sucks.
After my first month, the hakwon held its quarterly 상담 or consultations with parents. I really didn’t have much to say being so new and had only a week or two of in-person class time, but these 대치 (Daechi) moms are something else. Known to be overly eager to make sure their children get the best education, they signed up for nearly every time slot I had. Unfortunately or fortunately, my barely elementary Korean made for some awkward phone calls. On the one hand, they know I speak fluent English and that their children are in good hands; on the other, they can’t ask about their children’s progress. As for me, I’m just glad I have less awkward phone calls.
“play with me.”
How hakwon life is going.
The first few months were filled with new beginnings. New country and therefore my second immigration, new job, new housing, new bills and utilities, new neighborhoods and eateries, new friends, new responsibilities and joys. At 30 years old, my beginnings are filled to the brim.
I’d tell you: Neither of us was thrilled for that dinner. I’m not surprised, given our history (the details I will not divulge, but I do come off as a jag off).
The restaurant is a popular hole-in-the-wall with people waiting outside on a chilly Sunday night. Among them, she sits outside on repurposed, vintage stadium seats. We haven’t seen each other in years, pre-covid actually, but I can’t help but smile underneath my mask. She’s still so damn cute. I sit next to her on those icy, uncomfortable seats, but all awkwardness and nervousness melt away.
I can’t tell you how long we waited outside, but it seemed we got in right away. I can’t tell you how long it took us to order, but the waiter came by a couple times. I can’t tell you how long we let our food sit out cold, but they generously reheated it at least once. I can’t tell you how long it’s been since soju tasted so sweet, but we were definitely one of the loudest. I can tell you, however, that we were there for at least three hours. How? Well, I’m not sure: We were just talking and laughing, and suddenly it became closing time.
I asked her what she was doing next weekend. She said nothing yet. I replied good. We exchanged awkward laughs. A month later, we became IG official, slowly showing up on each other’s feed and stories.
Cherry blossoms, cocktails bars, cute cafes, sashimi and yummy food, Everland amusement park, Jeju, thousands of photos, exhibitions, flower bouquets, hand-written letters, sharing clothes, lazy mornings, thoughtful gifts, birthdays and holidays, fragrant aromas, small fights, big fights, apologies and forgiveness, tender words, intimacy; such sweetness I thought I would never savor at my age.
Not that I think I’m old, but after years of singleness and unsuccessful dating-app stories, I merely accepted loneliness as a norm. Besides, covid made me more introverted and awkward. I had no expectation, absolutely none, to meet somebody in Korea. But when love begins again, who am I to say no?
Same Old, Same Old
Weekdays: wake up late, go to work, end work, sleep late, repeat.
Weekends: with the girlfriend until Monday.
After a few months of work and dating, I fell into a routine, and I for one welcome such regularity. There’s a stability in the ebb and flow that comes with routine: knowing what to expect by Friday night and what to dread by Sunday night.
My favorite out of the many photo booth photos we took. We cute.
Years of uncertainty after the onset of covid left minor existential angst about the future. There is no such thing as “job security.” Just as the quantum realm has infinite possibilities of what quarks might become, the future is equally uncertain until experienced or becomes present. Whatever lies beyond the now is beyond extensive comprehension. So why build a castle of stones rather than a castle of sand or a castle at all if a category seven hurricane can sunder everything as if butter? No castle ever truly lasts.
Yet, in such unimaginable, immense vastness, life stubbornly persists.
Life stubbornly roots itself on soft, hard, or infertile soil and almost aggressively sprouts. Whether in a child’s bottomless hunger for attention and fun, a worker’s endless complaints about anything, a lover’s profound depth for intimacy, a friend’s reliable chortle and cackle, or a family’s persistence, life finds way.
Photo of the Stephan’s Quintet with James Webb Space Telescope.
Step by step, brick by brick, life established a routine for me in 2022. The things that fell apart in 2021 was built back up.
A Year in Review
2022 and my 30th year are monumental. The closure of my 20s and the dawn of a new decade. Every decade in one’s life is significant, and my 20s were no exception. I experienced the birth and death of a life’s passion (to become a professor), the harrowing loss of a mother, the pain of love and breakup, the loneliness of depression and stress of anxiety. I don’t expect 30s to be any easier. But with the foundation laid down in my 20s—all the agonies and joys—I brace the future, whether the cat is dead or alive.
Loved reading this, sooho! Happy you’re doing well and still writing. Hope life allows us to cross paths again soon 💕