Friday, January 17, 2014

Try Not to Blink

Most posts like these hover closer to the turn of the calendar: heralding a New Year, pondering all it may portend while probing the experiences of the one so freshly left behind. Accomplishments are crowed and hopes are cooed, bearing the standards of our midwinter rebirths. The good is grasped tightly in writing so any bad beyond the horizon can't blot it out entirely when the world feels darker and colder. This post attempts these things, of course; however, it requires that I slide the scale a bit. My last and coming year are not framed by the beginnings of Januarys, but the ends. January 25 marks our anniversary of living in Seoul, where we've just signed on for another contract to end February, 2015. My year is therefore slightly shifted from the usual count, and my reflections are skewed accordingly.

'Expect the unexpected' is a trope of the traveler, and, as expected, the past year it has proven it true enough.

I've learned a new language - not enough to hold a conversation, but enough to form grammatically-correct sentences with a little struggle, and more than enough to survive. I learned to read and write a new alphabet in less than a week. I can navigate the subway and direct a taxi with the basics. I can peruse a menu and order the usuals, and while my vocabulary may not always suffice, I can at least amuse those patient enough with a decent accent.

I've tried to embrace the cultures that have welcomed me as a guest, even if there are times I've wanted to fold my arms and click my heels on the off-chance such a transplant doesn't require a tornado and a head wound.

I've visited three countries outside of Korea, four if you count a few steps beyond an invisible line into the negotiating territory of North Korea. Malaysia, Japan, and the Philippines have shown me glimpses of worlds to which I'd never previously given much thought beyond romanticized stories or fingers tracing a map. I've stared like a child at whale sharks and guarded my belongings from unscrupulous monkeys. I've sipped soju on rooftops and tasted corner store sake on my boyfriend's lips. I played darts with an audience of chirping geckos and learned how to shuffle cards like an adult. I've wandered through painted palaces built, burned, and rebuilt over thousands of lifetimes before mine, and I've spent several cumulative hours looking for a place to pee. I've collected prayer beads from cool-tiled mosques, shrines in caves, and temples on the edge of the sea. I've retraced countless steps and found my way before I even realized I was lost. I've confirmed an uncanny ability to know my way around by recognition of subtle landmarks, and I've thanked God for Adam's sense of direction in the face of my hopelessness (without a handy compass or the convenience of tree moss, I've accepted that I will never have those bearings - seriously, where the hell is North?).

My ability to endure spicy foods has grown to a point at which I am not filled with dread to try a bite of something new (and instead, every so often, I'm filled only with mild regret and temporary pain). I saw Basquiat's art and remembered to try to make some of my own, too. I nursed bruises and scrapes from a Spartan Race and hunted mosquitoes with vengeance. I explored with my parents when they came for a surreal visit. I climbed a mountain with terrifying, humbling views, afraid to reach the top, but more afraid not to. I was caught by the monsoon in the park when we lingered too long for the summer sun's liking. I cried under cherry blossoms and laughed in the glow of thousands of lanterns floating through crowded streets. I played in the mud, sang in sweaty bars, and fed neighborhood alley cats in the rain.

I've fallen in love with teaching and had my heart repeatedly broken by dozens of unfairly-adorable 6-year-olds. I encouraged sarcasm in a couple third graders, fanned infant flames of feminism in a few others, and asked "Why?" a million times.

I've forged new friendships while aching for the ones on the other side of the world. I've seized opportunities across oceans while missing milestones at home - weddings of dear friends, the birth of my nephew, my cat learning patience - and knowing there will be more. Technology helps to soothe the pangs of these particular casualties of my time here, but sometimes the sense of removal is strong and homesickness flairs when I can only celebrate these occasions via Skype. I also feel these things knowing that one day, I will feel the same for my life in Seoul. There is a certain peril with this brand of adventure: the heart-seam-ripping feeling of longing for home and longing for hazard abroad, as if one can be ignored or made dormant while the other is satisfied. This longing exists, dully, just under my ribs, with semi-frequent  bouts of acute immediacy. It has taught me that Home is not where, but with whom (which seems to make things infinitely more difficult), and it spurs a selfish desire to transplant everyone I love to wherever I happen to be.

I've been reminded over and over again of my luck, that I get to share all of this with someone I love in ways I never knew possible. He has taught me more about living - and about myself - than I'm sure he ever intended. I couldn't ask for a better partner (or a better travel buddy, to boot). I wouldn't be where I am without him, physically and otherwise, and I'm excited for our next year together, and the year after, and the years after that.

I've felt unsure more times than I thought tolerable. There were stretches when depression stole the throne, as it does from time to time. I've known discomfort as a constant shadow, and I've let fear drive discovery.

I've been happy.

Altogether, 2013 delivered more than I could have imagined; I'm sure this year has much more in store. I'll look forward to good things - expected and unexpected - and try not to blink.

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