Saturday, June 5, 2010

Travelogue #58: South Korea, My Ex

---> Travelogue #59: It's Not Surreal. It's Real.

When I left her in October 2008, I didn't think I'd ever see her again. It felt like not only the end of a chapter, but the end of a book. Close her up. It's over. Done. But South Korea wasn't a set of pages to be turned; no, she was my one-time girlfriend turned ex. I knew it from the way I talked about her with strangers or with friends, the way I'd share my year of anecdotes through a nostalgic nod, as if to say, "The telling is a tease. If only, if only I could show you."

Dear reader. I can see you threatening to roll your eyes, or maybe you've already rolled them. You can accuse me of lapsing into melodrama, but let me explain: for three hundred and sixty-five days, she was with me. I'd hear the chime of her subways, I'd see the silver mist of her faraway mountains, I'd sound out the uh's and yo's of her words and, haltingly, speak the names of her foods. I'd eat her foods, so spicy they made me sweat and smile. My favorite: dak galbi, which Wikipedia salivatingly describes as, "stir-frying marinated diced chicken in a gochujang (chili pepper paste) based sauce, and sliced cabbage, sweet potato, scallions, onions and tteok (rice cake) together on a hot plate."

I'd even smell the kimchi in her trash cans: sour, but mine.

She was with me, my everyday reality. And then, like that, she was just a memory, captured in photographs and videos and blogs. And then, she was a story from a memory, repurposed and retold, a copy of a copy. Where'd she go? Pictures didn't do enough; neither did videos. Talking about her with friends who'd once lived her was close, but damn it, I missed her. Thinking I'd never see her again lent my nostalgia a special ache.

In February I found a Korean restaurant in Maitland, Florida called Seoul Garden. I ordered jayookdopbop (spicy pork and rice) and the Korean server, an older woman ajumma, nodded at me. Jayook was one of my favorite dishes in Korea, partly for its sweat-inducing spice, partly because it would fill me up for $3. I enjoyed the Maitland version; it singed my tongue. The taste was like a kiss I'd forgotten. Then the check came: $20. I wasn't in Korea anymore.

If you've ever read my blog, you know there were things I didn't love about Korea. A year was a long time to be away from my family and my country; in other words, don't count me as one of those Dude-America-sucks-I-don't-want-to-live-there dudes. America is my home. But this summer, from June 9th to August 14th, I'm going back to South Korea. I'll be living in Seoul, in the neighborhood of Yeonheedong, which is sandwiched between the neon-splashed districts of Hongdae and Sinchon. I'll be teaching SAT English, and hopefully, continuing to find cultural experiences to chronicle in this long-dormant travelogue. (I plan to update on the weekends.) My reasons for going to the wild, wild East have changed: In 2007, I went to work and write, yes, but I also went to run away from a lack of clearcut options in the U.S. This time, I'm heading to Korea to save money for my second year of the MFA program at the University of Central Florida. That's my practical meat-and-potatoes reason for going back.

But my romantic, rice-and-kimchi reason? Her, whom I leave with this: South Korea, I know it's been two years, but relax. Don't get creeped out by me. I'm going to hold your hand.

Annyong. (Hi.)

---> Travelogue #59: It's Not Surreal. It's Real.


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