I have a tendency to seed my writings—and my blog titles—with references to classic novels, well-known poems and pop culture arcana. You know, just to see if you guys are on your mental toes. And to give you food for thought, of course. And to show the world what a well-read and culturally aware fellow I am. The title of this blog post was based on a noteworthy 1955 film...do I really have to say it?
The new semester has begun at work, and I'm adjusting to new faces, new classes and a new course load. I have a fuller schedule this time around. We've lost a few teachers. So many people have departed that the very character of the academy is changing. First it was Chris, the fellow I used to watch movies with on Wednesday nights. We'd barely gotten the tradition started when he up and left for mainland Asia. His replacement is a lovely woman from Connecticut whom Miss H and I have been glad to hang around with.
A couple of our teaching assistants (young Korean adults who do odd jobs like copying, filing, and errands) have left too. One of them went off to Turkey for a few months, and the other's going back to university while he waits for his girlfriend to get done backpacking through Europe. Terrible shame—they were wonderful souls.
And now it's M&E, the head native teachers ("native" meaning "native English speaker"—they're from England). Their last day was Friday. They've been working at Avalon for the better part of five years. Their retirement was an emotional affair—they've watched many of these students grow up. They started teaching them in elementary school and ushered them up all the way to high school. Wow. I mean, I forge bonds with some of my students, but one year isn't enough to make those bonds more than transient. I've dropped out of contact with all but one of my old Geoje pupils (tell ya sorry). But M&E are leaving five years of pure history behind. I wish them luck.
All this talk of departures and new horizons has got me wondering. I used to think it was the bee's knees, living here in Korea. I felt like a seasoned world traveler. Things felt so different here—the language, the culture, the food, the whole nine yards. That was just my inexperience talking. I see that now. Any country, from Canada to Mozambique, would have qualified as an exciting travel destination as long as it wasn't U.S. soil. I just needed to be away from my homeland and discover new things. Korea was a good place to start.
Lately, though, I've begun to think that I've discovered all that Korea has to offer. I'll grant you there's a hundred things in the guidebook that I haven't seen. And a mere two or three years isn't enough to know a place, even a country as small as K-Land. But I've begun to think that this place just isn't different enough. Except for its geographical location, its language and its history, Korea is virtually indistinguishable from a Western nation—particularly the United States. It's got Internet. It's got computers and cell phones (they call them "handphones" here, but what the hell). It's got cars galore. They drive on the left side of the road, too. There's a highway system. There's traffic lights. There's skyscrapers. There's Internet cafés. There's department stores. There's name brands like Converse and Tommy Hilfiger. There's movie theaters, complete with buttered popcorn and 3D screens. There's English-language bookstores. There's McDonald's, Burger King, Quiznos, Subway, Taco Bell. They even have MTV, for Pete's sake.
I feel like my taste in travel destinations has matured, somewhat. I don't need all the comforts of home (and a stamp in my passport) to feel like a seasoned world traveler. Increasingly, I feel the need to get away from the trappings of Western civilization: television, designer clothing, fast food, six-lane boulevards, subway trains, computers, cell phones, pop music. I want to escape. I want to fly the coop. I want to lose myself in the bush, decompress by a crystal lake somewhere with a flask of whiskey and a book (a paper book, thank you very much).
Maybe I've been in the big city too long. I've lived in Bucheon for nearly five months and I still haven't gotten the chance to get away into the countryside. I've made a few trips to the DMZ, but apart from that, I haven't budged from the Seoul metropolitan area. Then again, I don't have anywhere to go. Korea does have some nice national parks, but they take ages to get to. You can't just drive for an hour or two like you can in the States, find yourself in the deserted countryside, sit down and have a picnic.
It's more than that. I don't just want to get away from the city. I want to get away from civilization itself. I've had it up to here with processed foods and noisy copy machines and American politics. I'm done; get me out of here. I want to shop at a Vietnamese market, listen to a beat-up old radio in a ramshackle bar in East Africa, take a nap under a tree in some Patagonian village. Remove myself from technology, world events. Find someplace quiet. Get off the grid. Take a hike. Move off the beaten path. Be incognito for a while.
This is actually a fairly typical phenomenon for expatriate teachers in Korea. Roughly halfway through their year-long hitch, they get itchy feet. They get restless. They get antsy. That, or they go the opposite direction, becoming lethargic, irritable, listless. The humdrum banality of their daily routine gets into their heads, and the cramped conditions on this tiny peninsula exacerbate the situation.
I'm no exception. I find myself Googling pictures of exotic, natural locales like the Atlas Mountains, Anatolia, the Hindu Kush, or Siberia. I feel anxious to be out on the road. I resent being stuck here in the city, going to work 2-10, with hardly a vacation day in sight.
S'pose I'll have to get through it somehow. I'll let you know how it goes.
Here's a tip: reading travel books doesn't help.