I picked Jim up just down the road from the apartment which had been his home for the past four or five years. He was standing on the corner dressed in black with the hood of his jacket pulled over his head as he paced up and down beside his suitcase and the few plastic bags holding his last few odds and ends. Loading these into the back of the car we drove back to my place and Jim settled into the spare room. Later on we walked down to the nearest Family Mart and bought a few beers. Back home, we settled in for the night.
I first met Jim over four years ago. We had similar interests but as people we were quite different. At time Jim reminded me a little more of my brother, especially in terms of these interests, but they are also quite different. We first met when we were going to the same open mike together to read out poems and then Jim joined the short-lived Drunken Writers Guild, a writing group that I and my friend Jeremy Toombs started.
Jim was the friend in Korea that always seemed to be there. He was a feature for every important event that emerged in my life in Korea. I used to think that it was, perhaps, because he had nothing to do but I later realised that it was a lot more than that. He was a good friend who espoused loyalty to the extent that Lassie would have been embarrassed.
Jim came to open-mikes when no one else was coming in the depths of December and January, he came to countless birthday dinners, music nights, my wedding, Saint Patrick’s Day, and more. He always looked to try and meet an old friend when he took his trips abroad during his school holidays. He never tried to be anyone else other than himself. He always said he would leave Korea and put it off a few times but that day eventually arrived on Tuesday morning.
Jim never said he would stay here in Korea forever. But, probably because he just seemed to be here all the time, maybe I just assumed that he would be. Jim worked in the same middle school, lived in the same apartment, visited the same church every Sunday for these four or five years that he lived in Korea. This kind of loyalty is a rarity in the English teaching world. I don’t know why I assumed that Jim would always be a fixture in my life in Korea as he was one of the few people I knew here who followed up on his plans.
To see this fixture evaporate reminds me again of that statement I used to hear so often when I first came to Korea, and even more so when myself and herself were in the heights of our pre-marital romancing: all foreigners go home.
This is not an order, but a statement much like foreigners can’t eat spicy food. Sure, there is a certain amount of myth in this assertion but how true is it? ‘All foreigners go home’ carries a lot more weight than they don’t like spicy food, and there are exceptions of course, but I wouldn’t be afraid to suggest that the majority of foreign residents in Korea will all leave Korea before they die, and even more so after a short time.
There is a list of people who will probably live here their entire life and also possibly die – many who have been involved in the religious missions for example – but they are in the minority more and more these days. When I first met herself’s family, her uncles were all quite certain that I would leave some day. Since we have married they seem less concerned about this fact, because if I do leave I will be taking their niece with me.
Now that Jim has left I am kind of like the last man standing. Once we had a crew, or gang, all nomadic English teaching types who were prepared to drink our way through Korea in the hope of getting to the other side loaded with artistic inspiration and hagwon fattened bank accounts. Well, of all of those who first participated in regular debauchery, I am all that is left in Korea. It’s a little sad from a nostalgic perspective. But then it’s good that we have all moved on, and I will too some time.
When you look back at the first years in Korea they are always different to the present after being here for a long period of time. I still regard Itaewon as a good place to go for a few beers, although the reality is anything but that, and I still wander into bars expecting to recognise most of the clientele only to find circles of tables full of laughter and not a familiar face among them. When Jim left the other day I knew that the end of the days as a fun-loving, twenty-something English teacher in Korea were well and truly past.
Jim and I had one thing in common with regards Korea. We were both looking for a kind of escape when we got here. Things weren’t too hot back at home and options were kind of limited, although not as desperate as they are these days. My excuse for coming to Korea was never that would be used on a KNTO ad.
I went to university job’s fare and all I could find were engineering, legal and accountancy jobs on offer, except for this one corner where two ladies in hanboks stood handing out flyers inviting people to come and teach in Korea where you could save loads of money and then travel around the world. It seemed like a reasonable enough prospect. At the time I didn’t really have much of an idea about who I was and what I wanted to do with my life, and spending a year in a foreign country seemed as decent a prospect as any other.
I know Jim had problems with where he had been working and found a definite release from these pressures when he started teaching enthusiastic Korean kids, as opposed to kids who came from troubled families on an Indian reservation in South Dakota.
When it came down it both of us were blessed with the time and the space to get a better idea about who we were and what we wanted to do with our lives. But now both of us are in a different position from before; Jim is back in the US while I am still here in Korea making my own plans which are very different than those I set out on over six years ago when I first left Ireland for Korea.
When Jim got on the airport bus at 6am on Tuesday morning he hopped on with a smile, excited that he was taking a big step in his life by returning to his hometown to live after staying away for a long time. He was hopeful and expectant that what he had been saving up for so long was being realised at last. I couldn’t help but feel envious of him.
Maybe it was the romantic emigrant wishing to return to Ireland. Maybe it was the sight of my friend leaving and the prospect that I might not see him face-to-face again. Maybe it was all because it was 6am and I usually don’t get up until nearly ten. But, it was sad for me. I couldn’t help but rush home to avoid hanging around stretching out a long goodbye.
All foreigners go home, it’s true. This one did as Jim bussed it back off to the airport. I did a u-turn and drove back down the main stretch running through Yeongtong, whirring over the metal planks covering the subway works, down between the lines of twenty-floored apartment buildings, and pulled into the car park in front of my building. I got out of the car and walked up the steps and into the lift and pushed the number twenty button. When I closed the front door of the apartment behind me there was a silence lit by the grey blue colour of the morning twilight. It was an empty silence. I got back into bed and looked at the ceiling for a while thinking.
When I woke a few hours later I had breakfast and went to work.
You can read some of what Jim has to talk about here.