This may be my last year in Korea

Reflecting on 2020 and the Living in Korea Dream

A belated Happy New Year, reader, and well done: 2020 was exhausting but you got through it. And wherever you are, thanks for hanging out in my corner of the internet. It always brightens my day when I see new subscribers and comments.

How do you like to mark the new year? I usually do some reflection. For the past few years, I’ve used the following journal prompts, that I found on artist/entrepreneur Kelly Rae Roberts’s blog:

1. What do you want to acknowledge yourself for in regard to 2020? (What did you create? What challenges did you face with courage and strength? What promises did you keep to yourself? What brave choices did you make? What are you proud of?) 

2. What is there to grieve about 2020? (What was disappointing? What was scary? What was hard? What can you forgive yourself for?) 

3. What else do you need to say about the year to declare it complete? The next step is to say out loud, “I declare 2020 complete!” How do you feel? If you don’t feel quite right, there might be one more thing to say…

But I didn’t feel want to reflect on 2020.

I didn’t want to tally up the joys against the disappointments—which felt as if they kept compounding, like a car pile-up, all the way until Christmas. (What an uplifting visual.) I didn’t want to relive the darker, lonelier bits and look upon the final balance without being able to tie everything up in a neat, pithy self-growth bow, or declare some single noteworthy achievement (“However, I got married! I created X! We welcomed baby X!”) that proudly overshadows the other gunk.

Oof. Deep breath, Hana.

2020 crossed blurredly into 2021, and I took a short trip to Yangpyeong in the countryside to visit a friend.

It had been some months since I’d left the city.

It took some urging, to be honest; I’d put it off once already. I was on the fence about packing a bag and taking the two-hour subway trip just for one night, when I could also spend my 3 days of vacation time binging bad Christmas series* on Netflix while lying on my heated ondol flooring**, like I can on the other 364 days of the year.

But as soon as I stepped into my friend’s partner’s apartment, I felt I’d made the right choice. The space, with traditional wooden fixtures on the ceiling and walls, was softly lit and enveloped by the deep stillness of the countryside. No familiar sounds of loitering drunkards, garbage trucks, or the ajoesshi in the upstairs apartment retching loudly.

It was so dark and quiet that I accidentally slept in until 10.30am the next morning. I emerged from the bedroom, a little embarrassed, and entered the living room to meet a wide, unobstructed view of the river.

For the first time in a long time, I stopped and exhaled. Really exhaled.

I’d forgotten how physical space can open up mental space. A fresh view can bring a change in perspective.

How are you? my friend asked. Are you still enjoying living in Korea?

It’s so powerful to ask someone a simple question and be fully present to the answer. It had been about six months since we’d spoken, and in that moment, on the riverbank of Yangpyeong, I had the time and space to properly reflect.

The truth is I’m not sure, I said. I’m not sure how to evaluate the past year of living in Korea, nor how to separate the experience from covid. And I don’t know when, or if, life will resume as “normal” in Korea.

This may be my last year here. I didn’t want to reflect on 2020 because I didn’t want to face that realisation.

Last week, I saw the film Minari by Korean American writer-director Lee Isaac Chung. In it, Jacob and Monica, a Korean immigrant couple, relocate their two young children from a comfortable life in California to small farm in Arkansas, in pursuit of the American dream.

As I watched their hopes, joys and frustrations, and the couple’s conflict over whether to stay and follow the dream, or return to California, it resonated with my own immigrant experience—not the first one, when I immigrated to Australia from Korea as an infant without a choice—but the second time, when I willfully transplanted myself here, a foreign country, without the language, culture, or a safety net.

If Jacob dreamed of setting up a farm selling Korean fruits and vegetables to show his children that he could succeed at something, what was this Korean adoptee’s dream of living in the motherland? To find a sense of belonging, community, and something like “home”—which has always been difficult as an adoptee and Third Culture Kid.

There was also a fantasy…I can admit that now. Perhaps I was never meant to leave Korea in the first place, and by returning here, the self-doubt, identity confusion, depression, and anxiety, might magically work itself out. When the same problems eventually emerged in Korea, I felt foolish and naive.

Like Jacob buys a farm whose crop had failed under the previous owner, I moved to Korea despite the odds—despite what I’d heard about the patriarchal culture, restricted job opportunities, and limited dating options for female adoptees.

And it doesn’t matter if I fail too. I had to try for myself. That’s what life is. Taking risks. Having new experiences. Learning. Growing.

Whether I stay and grow—like the minari plant, which doesn’t thrive until its second season—or leave, I go into 2021 with my eyes more open. A little battle-weary, but still deep in the trenches.

I want to be here for it. Here for this Korean life in all its glory. 

*The Norwegian series “Home for Christmas” was the perfect holiday viewing, and not bad at all really.

** Ondol heating is the one saving grace of Korean winters and somehow I only just discovered how good it feels to crank it up and lie down on your back. Am I turning into an ajumma? Whatever, simple pleasures.

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