I met J. on a bus. I was going home from some activity, I can’t remember now, and the bus suddenly stopped in a neighborhood I didn’t know. By the time everyone got off the bus I had figured out there was some kind of mechanical problem. I was still a little disconcerted, but determined to go with the flow. I started walking to the subway, when J. came up to me and said, “The bus broke down, but another one will come for us, you should stay here.” Since she spoke almost perfect English, we started talking. She was an English teacher too, although she worked in a hagwon ( a private academy ) and I had just gotten a job in at a local college. I decided that since many Koreans feel free to ask me if I want to tutor them in English, even if I am at the grocery store or otherwise busy, it would be ok for me to ask J. if she would consider being my Korean tutor. She said yes. We exchanged phone numbers and vital information. That was seven years ago.
She has since become my teacher, my guide, my hiking companion, and my friend. When she got a chance to go to Rutger’s in N.J., I felt both proud of her and sad, because I knew I would miss her very much. For five years we kept in touch by e-mail and chat and the odd phone call through my travels and hers. This week she came back to Korea. She had wanted to before, but because of visa problems it would be difficult for her to return to the states if she came back. She finally got an official working visa, so she could come home to visit.
I took the KTX to Deagu. KTX is the high-speed train, and it only took two hours. I was able to go on a day trip on Sunday. We met and you know what? It didn’t seem like five years had passed. We hugged and said the requisite “You haven’t changed a bit” and then started talking like we hadn’t seen each other since last weekend.
We of course talked about home, and what that means. I think it is hard to live as a foreigner in another country. Neither of us would give up our home country, but we both like living abroad. It isn’t always an easy life, but it is a good one.
I like traveling, I like the excitement of finding out how a new place works, and finding new things and new foods and new ideas. I even like the music of new languages. Korea is no longer a new place. In many ways it has become a home to me. I know how it works, and although I don’t speak the language as well as I would like ( my fault, not J’s) I am very comfortable here. So I’m not sure what “home” means anymore. Is it the place you come from? I don’t know many people still there. Is it the place you live now? I”m not sure others would agree with me. Perhaps it is being comfortable in your own skin enough to be home wherever you are. I don’t have the answer.
As I boarded the train back to Seoul, we said good-bye. It didn’t feel sad, like the good-bye you say when you don’t know if you’ll see each other again. This good-bye was more like see you later. And you know, even if it is another five years before I see J again, we will pick up right where we left off, and it will feel like we just saw each other a week ago. We are at home with each other, and that is a rare gift.
For winter camp we are studying the Wizard of Oz. It is such an iconic part of Americana that I think my students should know about it. It is true, there is no place like home. I just don’t think home has to be in Kansas. Oz has some nice neighborhoods too.