Guest Post: All Foreigners Come Back


About two years ago Conor wrote a real nice piece about me as I had just left Korea. It’d been a pretty long journey for me as I’d been there for five years. As Conor wrote I was pretty excited to do some things I’d been saving and planning for a while, but beneath all that was some anxiety as my long term plans were still unclear.

It’s a long story but the short version is my first job out of college was teaching in the Midwestern United States. It was a tough place with a lot of challenges, and after two years I decided to leave. I had the idea in my head that I accomplished something, and thought I now deserved some fabulous life or something like that. Basically as soon as I left my life went downhill. Lots of different things went wrong, had some ugly experiences etc. One thing led to another and I ended up taking a job in Korea.

I was hesitant to go, but I was really upset and angry about how my life turned out. Looking back on the previous few years I felt I had nothing to show for myself. Suwon South Korea ended up being my new home, where I taught English at a public middle school.

Almost as soon as I arrived things turned around. The saying probably is true that there’s nothing like your first year in Korea. The kids were so excited to see me. Do you know what it is to walk into a room and have 40 kids cheering for you? One of them would write “Handsome James” on his tablet and hold it up like a sign. I couldn’t walk the hallways for a while because the kids would see me and get so excited.

Jim’s middle school in Suwon.

That first year I didn’t go out much, but I was happy because I pretty much had a good time at work every day. I made a few new friends, and eventually started getting out more, doing the whole Itaewon and Hon Dae thing, seeing bands etc. During breaks I also got to travel to a lot of places I always wanted to go. I went to Japan a few times, Australia, the Philippines, India, China, Thailand, and a bunch more.

Along the way I changed a lot, and one day when I was out playing basketball with my kids something really hit me. I should have kept that job in the Midwest. It took me almost ten years to figure it out.

I never thought I’d do five years in Korea. Especially those first three, I generally believed every year that “next year” I’d be going home. Cut to the end of 2010, it was almost 2011, I had some money saved up and had been in prayer about leaving at the right time. I was working on my birthday which is right before Christmas when I found the note on my desk. Due to budget cuts, once my current contract would run out on September 30th of 2011 I would not be renewed.

Several other foreigners would have the same fate. I’d heard rumors this was coming, so it wasn’t a total surprise, but still it really hit me. This is it, it really is over now. If this had happened a few years prior I’d have been more upset about it, but I just accepted that it was time to go.

So I soaked in every moment of those last nine months. It helped that the new batch of kids that came in were fantastic. That last year was probably my second best year in Korea as far as the job went.

Then that day came Conor wrote about that I hopped on that bus, and I was excited. In just a few weeks I’d go to the New York Comic Book Convention and meet the legendary Stan Lee. I’d do a cross country road trip; self-publish a few books and sell them at shows, and do all these things I’d been planning and saving towards, but then what?

Jim with his poetry book at the Poet’s House in New York City

Culture shock was something I’d never experienced, but coming back to my hometown that’s been getting worse and worse, seeing old friends go through hard times, not seeing people you expected to see, and just generally being back in western culture was a lot to deal with. Reverse culture shock hit me hard. When a westerner comes back from Korea their friends and family tell them they’re glad they’re back where it’s “safe.” They say this because they love us and they mean well, but they don’t understand that we were quite safe in Korea, maybe even more safe than at home. I’m eating pasta at a Pizza hut in Suwon when some high school boys I don’t know come in. They’re excited to talk to me and offer some of their pizza. I’m walking down the street and some Korean teenage boys walk the other way and it’s “Hi what’s your name where are you from? You are very handsome! Nice to meet you!” Now I’m not saying they’re perfect angels who never do anything wrong. I’ve heard “Fuck you James” a few times as well. But in my own hometown that summer I was back a 15 year old boy followed me and a friend down the street yelling and cursing at us acting like he wanted to fight us. That never happened to me in Asia.

Doing my cross country road trip was great. I’d seen a few old friends I hadn’t seen in 10+ years, went to a few places I’d never been to before, but some of it was really heavy for me too. I went back to my old school in the midwest and ran into a few old students. One of them even said to me “We told you not to leave and you fucking did anyway!” I was coming face to face with what I did wrong.

However there was another personal situation which I won’t get into which was clouding my judgment, and I kind of blew a chance to go back to my old school. Now I was in a situation where I needed to start working soon and didn’t’ know what to do. Times like this you go with what you know, and, Korea being Korea, I was quickly offered a job.

All foreigners go home, and a lot of foreigners end up coming back. Almost exactly a year after I’d left I was back in Korea. Even though the reverse culture shock was hard to deal with, I wasn’t happy to be back. It was for a lot of reasons, but in short I was only coming back for a job and didn’t like that being the only reason I was coming back. I was real pissed off for a bit, but luckily it wouldn’t last.

This time I was out in the country side, kind of like being out in the midwest. The kids were great. I got to see a few friends that were still in Korea, got to meet Conor’s +1, and made some new friends along the way.

Still I knew what needed to be done. Last summer at maybe 2 in the morning I made a phone call and got the news that I got my old job back. I did feel bad for having to break contract with the Korean school, but I figured I’d do the summer camp so I wouldn’t totally screw them over.

Jim’s new/old school in the US

I was ready to leave Korea this time, and that’s the thing. I wasn’t really ready to leave the first time. Coming back helped me realize that I shouldn’t stay in Korea forever, as much as it’s a good life and an easy life, I’m not meant to be a lifer.

So what’s the point of all this? I don’t know. Conor asked for guest posts and this came to mind. I guess I’d want fellow teachers to know that there is life after Korea. Reverse culture shock can be really hard to deal with, but maybe reading this will help someone out there.

Both times when I went to Korea I did so hesitantly, but both times that country gave me a lot of healing and got me straightened out inside. In some ways Korea really saved my life. I’ll be forever thankful for that.

Dae-Han-Min-guk!

This post is guest post. For more on guest posts and how to submit please follow this link.

 

smiley jim

James Murray currently teaches high school social studies in the mid-western United States after traveling the world a bit. He enjoys movies, old cartoons, and a tall glass of milk. When he has spare time he attempts to write. In 2012 he started Hard Coal Studios for his self published comic books, poems, and prose. His website can be found at www.hardcoalstudios.com and he blogs at jemurr.wordpress.com/

How do you Mourn when you’re 8000 Kilometres from Home?


How do you mourn when you are so far away from the grief? This is something I’ve been asking myself over and over again since last Saturday when I got an email from my mother telling me that a friend back in Ireland had died. He had been suffering from cancer which set in and aggressively took over his body. In the end he died in his sleep.

It’s not the first time that someone I’ve known has died since I’ve been in Korea, but the way I have dealt with it each time has been different. I never knew what to do, and I still don’t know what to do.

Everyone has their own way of dealing with problems, and there is no right way or wrong way to deal with most. We can only hope that we can respond the best way that suits us. I think that of the three times I’ve had to mourn seriously in Korea, I can’t say that I’ve done it properly at all. I blame distance as much as I blame my own nature.

Richie was everyone’s friend. He was as Dunboyne as Brady’s Pub and parish church, and more. I’ve always been a closer friend with his younger brother Alan, but don’t let that take away from this, please. I really only got to know Richie when I was in my early twenties, and there were plenty of people of who knew him a lot better and a lot longer than I ever could. Back in the day, I can clearly remember wandering up to his small flat above the supermarket where I used to work, and sitting up drinking cans, and listening to him or his friends play the guitar late into the night.

Richie and his brother Alan playing in the Sugar Club last summer.

It was always a bit surreal as I could clearly remember that apartment being the storeroom when I worked in the supermarket downstairs, but fortunately enough good nights soon removed those awkward connections. Those days we’d be leaving the pub anxiously waiting for a text message from someone that simply said, “no. 5 is alive”. It almost became a motto for the weekend. Often we were not disappointed, and many a great night was had with Richie as our host extraordinaire.

The thing about Richie was he was just pure sound. And I mean proper sound. He was a decent, loving, caring, and engaging young man who loved everything about everyone and always gave you the time of day and listened to your story. If there were more people like him in the world then it would be a better place, and I say that from the perspective that there can never be enough people like Richie in the world.

I’m not sharing my own obscured and mournful perspective on Richie’s personality. If you ask anyone who knew Richie, even for a few minutes, they could not disagree with this assertion. That being said, I’m sure Richie had his enemies. We all do. But some of us choose to dwell on these things more than others. I don’t think Richie was the kind of person who did that.

When I first came to Korea, a good friend of mine’s father died. I didn’t deal with the situation very well. I dwelt on it for days but never picked up the phone and spoke with my friend. I was young and had never dealt with funerals and death well before. Usually I prefer to be on my own with my thoughts, but this wasn’t about me. Dealing with something like this can never be overly personal. I didn’t cope well, and more importantly I let my friend down when he needed me the most.

A couple of years later while in the middle of a writers’ group meeting the Grand Ole Opry in Itaewon, I got a phone call from my Da. The news wasn’t good. My grandmother who had been ill for a long time passed away. It was a long struggle, but it was something that, even if I knew how to deal with it in Korea, Ireland was the place I should be.

I got that phonecall on a Sunday night, and on Monday I went to work and told them that my grandmother had passed away and that I wanted to return to Ireland for the funeral. My hagwon at the time offered me four days off to travel, which when you consider that most Irish companies will only offer you three when a relative dies, I thought this was generous. However, if they had offered me an extra day I could have made it home.

Unfortunately, because of this lack of an extra day I couldn’t afford the flight. If I had an day extra I could have afforded it. My Da said he would pay for the flight, but I didn’t have enough of a limit on my credit card to pay for the ticket. I took the bus back home and the next day I went to work. I figured I was better off in work keeping busy than sitting at home kicking myself over that flight, and more other more distressing things.

Both times I have crawled into my own hole and kept to myself. I don’t think I’ve been overly upset and I don’t think I’ve mulled over the loss. I have just kept to myself and got on with it.

Not being in Ireland means I don’t absorb much of the grief. It’s a sad situation where I have to compare it with the idea of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. It’s not the subject of conversation on everyone around me’s tongues, and I can’t attend the funeral, and I won’t see his family and I won’t see his brother Alan, my friend. I am here on my own, both physically and emotionally, and with deaths I’m used to dealing with it that way, but this time it’s different. I’m waiting for everyone else to return to normal so they’ll pop up on skype and I can talk about this. I want to mourn and I want to mourn with my friends who knew my friend as much, if not more than I did.

I can’t help that being in Korea at this time is the wrong place to be. Why am I here when my friends are going through ordeals like this but it seems to pass over me almost like a crow?

Before, I wrote about unpacking boxes and looking at it like it was a time machine, and how it can feel like the world had stopped as you moved on, but with death it’s different. This is the kind of time capsule which is always waiting to haunt you whenever you pass down the street and pass somewhere that you shared a memory.

All week an amazing tribute to Richie has been posted on Facebook: photos after photo of him with friends sharing good times as only he knew best. Every like I see I smile and cry at the same time. It’s strange how we deal with memory and mourning at the same time.

But there’s more to it than that. It’s so complicated now that I can hardly put a finger on everything that needs to be talked about. The more I think about it, the more the reality sinks home that this young man who was full of life, love, and decency is no longer with us, the more I struggle to regard anything that has no human relevance as necessary.

Regardless of everything we have, we are nothing without the people around us. They are the people who remember us and they are the people who make us great.

Thank you Richie for being who you were, and for being the best that you could always have been. You will be missed by everyone you every touched, and that number of people is large, and those who knew you best can never forget you. Never. And we will all love you always.

Now, despite my own attempts at mourning, all my thoughts and love go to Richie’s family, especially his wife Helena and daughter Tessa Rose, and his parents and brothers and sisters, and his closest friends, several of whom are good friends of mine. Be strong everyone.

Rest in Peace.

Richie Yeats 1976-2012